Show some politicians a microphone and they will sooner or later (usually sooner) plant both their feet in their mouth before falling flat on their backside.
Step forward into the spotlight of stupidity then Oliver Letwin, occasional Cabinet Office Minister and full time Tory caricature. This week his contribution to the debate on airport expansion was to signal his opposition on the grounds that building more airports would only encourage the poor to move around; or as he put it ‘we don’t want more families from Sheffield flying off on cheap holidays.’
It was the sort of remark that, like Peter Mandelson’s about New Labour being intensely relaxed about some people becoming ‘filthy rich’, will come back to haunt his party over and over again; not least because a throwaway remark seems to contain some damning truths about his party’s values.
Add to this the research by the University of California published this week claiming that social mobility in Britain is now slower than it was during the middle ages and the mess Nick Clegg got into in his attempts to address ingrained privilege and said truths start o thunder towards you over the horizon like the Star Wars credits.
Professor Gregory Clarke of the University of California told politics.co.uk on Monday ‘the huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility’; and that ‘The modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy. Instead the rate seems to be a constant of social physics beyond the control of social engineering.’
It is possible to disagree with both points, for much of the past couple of hundred years improving public health and access to education has led to a corresponding improvement in the lives of all Britons regardless of class. Diseases of the sort that stalked the fetid streets of pre Victorian cities didn’t differentiate on class lines who they infected, so improving sanitation benefited rich and poor alike; compulsory education made the industrial advances of the nineteenth century and the prosperity they brought possible, the tragedy lay then in the inequality with which the wealth was distributed.
Where things have gone wrong is in the past half century, old industries that offered working people the chance to rise above their origins have contracted and for all but the lucky few social mobility has hit the buffers with a sickening thud. Fear not though, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has taken up the fight for equality and announced in the commons the setting up of a ‘child poverty and social mobility commission,’ for good measure he then laid into ‘sharp elbowed’ upper middle class parents who use their influence and contacts to land their children plum internships that provide the experience necessary to embark on high flying careers.
In the resulting debate, as reported by the Guardian, Clegg fell foul of Labour’s Harriet Harman who accused him of ‘betraying a generation of young people’ and said that he had ‘lost the right to pontificate on social mobility when he abolished the educational maintenance allowance and trebled tuition fees.’ In coalition Britain, she said social mobility now meant getting ‘a bus to the job centre,’ not exactly a rib tickler even by Ms Harman’s low standards, but enough to make the Deputy PM stagger back to his corner rather unsteadily at the end of the round.
He managed though, as is often the way with poor old Cleggy these days, to provide the knock out punch himself. It seems that the brave opponent of sharp elbows and undeserved privilege got his own start in life thanks to family patronage; oops! Cue much embarrassment and a flurry of mocking headlines in the tabloids, open mouth, insert foot; business as usual.
When the tears of laughter dried though the problems of social mobility not just stopping but being thrown into reverse were still there and the politicians don’t know what to do about it. Before the party managers hustled him off out of sight like an embarrassing uncle at a family gathering Oliver Letwin gave a hint that the Tories don’t really care about social mobility, even though they nod and make approving noises when earnest Iain Duncan Smith (another embarrassing uncle?) mentions it and why would they, their reason for existing is to protect privilege.
Labour should care though and in their way I suppose they do, but they certainly don’t understand the frustrations of being forever at the back of the queue. These days there are precious few horny handed sons and daughters of toil on the Labour benches and internal party prejudices prevent local parties from communicating with the gilded elite in their Hampstead ivory towers.
Britain is a democracy and privilege can’t be abolished by force and even if it could few would want that to happen. What people want is a level playing field, they want to see an economy based on manufacturing industries that provide talented working class boys and girls with the chance to get ahead if they want to or to earn a decent living if they don’t; they want to see local government given real power to bring about change based on what communities want not what big government backed by bigger business thinks they should have and they want to see fewer people like Oliver Letwin and more like Alan Johnson in parliament.
If they’re serious about reversing the decline in social mobility David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and the rest of our ‘political class’ know what needs to be done; but do they have the guts to do it? I won’t hold my breath.