Friday, 24 July 2009

Time to break through the glass ceiling.

Social mobility in modern Britain has ground to a halt with professions such as the law, medicine and journalism increasingly closed to anyone unlucky enough not to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth. This was the sad conclusion drawn by a report chaired by former minister Alan Milburn published this week.

Children from poor backgrounds, it concluded, need more encouragement and better careers advice to help them realise their full potential. Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday morning Mr Milburn said of the government’s attempts to level the educational playing field over the past twelve years ‘We have raised the glass ceiling but I don’t think we’ve broken through it yet.’

Too many professions, he said, still operated a ‘closed shop’ mentality when it came to recruitment and what was needed was a ‘great wave of social mobility’ to match that of the 50’s and 60’s that would lift talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds into previously closed professions.

Critics of the report, unsurprisingly, cited the decline and fall of the grammar school system from the sixties onwards as the chief driver behind the stalling of social mobility. Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts spoke for the majority of people on this side of the argument when he said, also to the BBC, ‘if only you brought selection back into state schools and as a result had a decent education system’ people from poor families would be able to ‘power through’ the glass ceiling.

In response Alan Milburn said that selection had worked when there were 250,000 students studying at Britain’s universities, but was no longer applicable at a time when student numbers have swelled to 2.5million.

As ever in matters such as this both sides get some important things right whilst at the same time ignoring much that is important, but, from their respective standpoint, inconvenient.

Alan Milburn is right to point out the extent to which the professions are still stuffy, clannish and disposed towards looking backwards and that in a modern society they should be representative on the social mix of the country in the same way they should of the mix regarding race, gender and disability. This isn’t a radical departure, its just basic common sense.

Quentin Letts and the legions of people who support the reintroduction of grammar schools make a valid point, however much the idealists dislike it selection will always have a role to play in education. When we try to make everybody equal we inevitably end up rounding standards down and preventing talent from flourishing, a high price to pay for ideological purity.

Both sides of the argument seem to ignore though one major point, social mobility cannot simply be commanded from the centre, it depends to a large part on the behaviour of individuals, and, sad to say, too many people remain on the bottom rung of the ladder because they choose, consciously or not, to do so.

We are all, quite rightly, concerned by the chronic underachievement of many members of what used to be called the white working class, not least because it has been a major contributing factor in the rise and rise of the far right in some of Britain’s most disadvantaged areas. It can, I would guess, be attributed to one key factor, the near total collapse of aspiration amongst the same social group.

This can be seen in the unwillingness of white working class boys to engage with education for fear of seeming to have diminished their masculinity by doing so, and in the number of girls from similar backgrounds who would rather be ‘famous’, than clever. It is a shocking testament to the shrinking of horizons that has taken place over the past fifty years.

It wasn’t always so, within living memory education was prized highly by working class people, every mining village and mill town had its own institute and library filled with working people determined to better themselves through learning. It goes without saying that these people wanted their children to do even better than they had, and to their credit many of them did too.

This government and the next should take heed of Alan Milburn’s report, central government can do a great deal to improve careers advice and to make sure children leave school with the skills and qualifications to get good jobs, but it can’t act alone. Individuals must take more responsibility for their progress and that made by their children. Making room at the top is not enough on its own, people must be encouraged to make the sacrifices necessary to climb the ladder.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Reviving the national character.

A lot of things that don’t make much in the way of sense tend to get written about the decline of the British national character. Half a century or more of the welfare state, easy credit and easier divorce has, so the prophets of doom say, turned us into a nation of pleasure seeking layabouts liable to collapse into hysterics of a sort that would have shamed our stoic grandparents when faced with the slightest hardship.

I can only imaging those people who make their living reading the last rites over the corpse of their country must be blind to the solemn scenes played out with painful regularity in a small Wiltshire town with a name so typically British in its whimsicality you could be forgiven for thinking it the creation of a team of marketing experts.

The town in question is Wootton Bassett and the solemn ceremonies relate to the bodies of British service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan returned in flag draped coffins to nearby RAF Lynham.

Almost since the start of those two unhappy wars local residents, joined more recently by people from around the country, line the streets to pay tribute to the returning war dead. This isn’t a ceremony scripted by some government appointee with one eye on garnering good publicity for an unpopular war; rather it is the spontaneous product of something the media claim has all but vanished from our national life, patriotism.

At a time when the nature of what it means to be British is under assault from the forces of a globalized economy, social change and a peculiarly British desire not to be seen making a fuss about who you are or what you stand for the display of public patriotism seen in Wootton Bassett is both authentic and vital.

Its authenticity rests on the fact they is so very understated, there are flags in abundance but they’re lowered to symbolise a shared grief and a shared understanding of the part played by the casualties of the current conflict in the much longer story of a small island struggling to make its way in a large and threatening world. The difference between this and the loud, gaudy and puddle shallow patriotism of a football crowd draped in flags of St George is as clear as that between lead and pure gold.

That such a display takes place at all is vital in the way that it demonstrates a sense of what it means to be British that isn’t based on race or generation, the crowds lining the streets in Wootton Bassett were as multi-cultural as anything assembled by earnest workers after integration and the age range spanned those with memories of the last world war to children young enough not to have been born when Tony Blair took office. It also symbolises a sense of what it means to be British that is informed by an awareness of our remarkable history and past achievements without being their hostage.

It would be reading too much into an event given value by its simplicity to claim this marks some ‘sea-change’ in the way we feel about ourselves; an end to years of hand wringing apologies and a mature acceptance that while many things change the essential character of a people is a constant. One thing though is clear, however much they wail about its decline the people who claim to understand the British character haven’t, in most cases, managed to get its measure.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the, partial, retirement this week of a sportsman who embodies much that is good about the British character, the England cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, who has given up playing Test cricket saying ‘My body has told me its time to stop.’

Showing a typically self deprecating view of his own abilities as a player and an inspiration to others he scotched any suggestion that his impending retirement would overshadow England’s performance in the Ashes saying ‘An Ashes series is bigger than any one player.’

Quite so, but then again Freddie Flintoff himself is bigger than most other players. In an age when sports stars are all too often gilded aristocrats divorced from the real lives of the fans who pay their inflated wages or focussed but bland automata grinding out results with all the joy of a canned goods factory set up in a gulag he possesses the magic ingredient of ‘character.’

At its worst that can manifest itself in tipsy mishaps that make the front page of the next day’s tabloids, at its best is represents a mixture of gritty determination and anarchic good humour that is as British as tea on the village green and trains that don’t run on time.

Thirty one is a little young for a player of his standing to be hanging up his bat for good, and Freddie Flintoff will still be available for one day matches and lucrative 20/20 games, it does make you wonder what will become of him once the long littleness of full retirement descends.

Surely not decades of well fed ineffectuality as one of the ‘blazers’ of which there are already far too many hanging on the coat tails of British sport, maybe a better role would be as a role model for our disaffected young boys, proving that the discipline of being a team player need not mean the death of the flaws and virtues that make an individual remarkable.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The king is dead; long live amnesia.

When the video to Thriller first came out in the early 1980’s one of the record shops in my home town put a television set in its window showing it on a constant loop. This rapidly drew a sizable crowd, each member of which was held in place by the fascination of watching a performance, and a performer, that seemed to be being beamed to earth from another and much stranger planet.

On the Tuesday of this week the world said goodbye to Michael Jackson, the architect of that spellbinding performance with a memorial concert that combined the glitz of a Vegas casino opening with the solemnity of a state funeral. Indeed since his death two weeks ago the eulogies attesting to his brilliance as a performer and his qualities as a man have reached such heights of hyperbole it must have come as a surprise to many people present that his casket wasn’t preceded into the auditorium by a rider-less horse with the fallen hero’s boots placed backwards in the stirrups.

As it was mourners around the world had to content themselves with a slick floor show and a tearful eulogy delivered by Jackson’s 11 year old daughter Paris, who said: ‘I just wanted to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,’ sentiments any child should be free to express about a departed parent, but not, perhaps ones that stand up to adult scrutiny in light of his somewhat eccentric approach to parenting.

Speaking about Jackson’s well eccentricity, a product, we are told of his fame and lack of a normal childhood and a reliable meal ticket for the tabloid press for the past two decades his brother Marlon told the audience: ‘We will never, never, understand what he endured,’ and added ‘maybe now the world will leave you alone.’

Some hope! Tuesday’s elaborate funerary farce was more about burnishing a legend than marking the passing of a life, after all a in the kingdom of pop a dead monarch can rack up more in the way of income than a living one.

At least he can if his legend in managed properly, if all the awkward mistakes and personal failings that make up an individual’s character, whether he is famous or not, are neatly ironed out, leaving behind, in Jackson’s case, a back catalogue of catchy, if slightly dated, bubblegum pop songs and the image of an eternal child bruised by the cruelty of the adult world.

All well and good, show business is the destination of choice for consumers who want to abandon reality you might say, apart from the fact that the reality of Jackson’s life and the squalid decade that preceded his death is the most important part of the story. They are an exemplar of how fame and wealth corrupt individuals and those around them. There must have been someone in Jackson’s entourage with the wit to say dangling your baby son out of a hotel window isn’t the sort of thing a responsible parent does; or that having inappropriately intimate friendships with young boys is no way to recapture your own lost childhood. Nobody did though because everyone was on the payroll and nobody wanted to risk their salary by being honest.

Perhaps by allowing others, through a willingness to remove the roseate glasses when they remember his life and career, to recognise the corrosive effects of fame and fortune is the one good thing that could come out of the wasted life of Michael Jackson.

It won’t happen though; it won’t happen because despite the fact that he was more astute than his tabloid image ever gave him credit for being, Jackson with his eccentricity and his well publicised slide from talented performer into public madness created the template for modern fame. We can see it in the elevation of poor helpless Susan Boyle to the position of being a national treasure and the delight the media took in her fall from grace; it was there in the tributes paid following the death of Jade Goody which neatly wrote out of her story little details like her lack of talent and involvement in a racist incident broadcast on national television.

Its telling, perhaps, that Jackson chose to call his Californian ranch Neverland since like Peter Pan there was always something a little sinister about him, in rejecting the cares of the adult world he also rejected its responsibilities and that, however hard we try to pretend otherwise, isn’t a recipe for preserving innocence; it’s a recipe for chaos.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Not waving but drowning?

Is it a policy document or a manifesto? Is the question people have been asking about ‘Building Britain’s Future’, a glossy publication setting out the government’s draft legislative programme.

The pledges made in the document are impressive, cancer patients are going to have the right to be seen by a specialist within two weeks of being diagnosed; schools are to be freed from the shackles of the literacy and numeracy hour and allowed limited freedom to set their own curriculum in these important areas; public services are no longer going to be bound by endless targets and ambitious job creation plans are going to swing into action any day now.

Motherhood and free apple pie for all don’t get a mention but the heroic determination to reshape the world set out in the document tips it closer to being a manifest by another name than a mere statement of policy.

All well and good, some of the more cynical commentators have pointed out that many of the policies announced in Building Britain’s Future are already in place or have been ‘borrowed’ from the opposition, but is heartening to see a beleaguered Labour government trying to spell out what it stands for.

At least it is if you don’t pay too much attention to the overall tone of the announcement, which, with its gimmicks, Gordon Brown spent three days touring the country by train this week, and sense of breathless urgency aimed at attracting the attention of a media that seems to be rapidly losing interest, smacks uncomfortably of the sort of thing parties do during their first awkward term in opposition.

A desperate attempt to talk very loudly about anything at all apart from just why it was they fell out of favour with the public. Despite a heroic effort to suggest something different the government still seems, like the swimmer in Stevie Smith’s poem to be not waving but drowning.


One good thing to come out of this week’s whirlwind of policy announcements is the shelving of plans to part privatise the Royal Mail.

Lord Mandleson initially claimed the bill to do so was likely to lose out as it ‘jostled’ with other items of legislation for space on a crowded commons agenda, later in the week he kicked the issue into the long grass for an indefinite period.

He was, it was claimed, acting out of pure expedience, mostly by people who also complain about the government not listening to public opinion. On this emotive and politically divisive issue they have listened, but doing so has only delayed an awkward decision.

The Royal Mail has, like the railways, been in decline for decades and, like the railways full or part privatisation is unlikely to solve any of the underlying problems afflicting the service. Like Dracula in a schlock horror movie the privatisation of the Royal Mail is an issue that will refuse to die however many silver bullets are fired at it.

The choice that will have to be made sooner or later is a stark one between a privatised service run by several providers struggling to maximise income for shareholders whilst cutting operating costs to the bone or a state run mail service free from the crueller demands of making a profit but bound by a need to justify its expense and existence that will leave little room for sentimentality.

Choosing between this particular rock and hard place could decide much more than just the future of the Royal Mail; it could also decide that of the Labour Party.


Never mind the economic crisis or the fate of the polar ice caps a far more important question has been thrust upon us this week, what will happen to her poor old pussy now Mrs Slocomb has been transferred to the great department store in the sky?

Seriously, Mollie Sugden who died yesterday and was known and loved by millions as the battleaxe shop assistant from comedy classic ‘Are You Being Served? Was one of Britain’s great entertainers, it may be fashionable for trendy media types to look down on the type of programme in which she appeared as tame and suburban; they were nothing of the sort. Are you Being Served smuggled more smut, subversion and sheer comic talent into a single half hour that makes it into an entire series of today’s more self consciously ‘edgy’ comedy shows.

We won’t see her like again.