Race matters but class is the biggest barrier In Britain, we have deep enough divisions of our own without shoehorning America’s culture wars into our daily lives
Our bond may be special, even indestructible, but the United States and the United Kingdom are separated by more than a common language. That is why the cultural borrowings that inflame our campuses, workplaces, and even sports fields make me uneasy.
America’s racial divide is real, and if anything deeper than when my parents decamped to New York half a century ago. But the increasingly theatrical transfer of America’s culture wars to Britain is a desperate mistake. We have deep enough divisions in our own country without shoehorning someone else’s conflicts into our daily lives. In Britain race matters, but in truth, it is what we call “class” that presents the biggest barrier to ambition and talent.
Yesterday’s ritual knee-taking by the England football team passed off with minimal booing, possibly because many fans will have read Gareth Southgate’s emotional appeal to back the side. I admire the young players for their desire to put on a show of racial solidarity in protest at the murder of young black Americans by officers of the state. Police homicides do happen in the UK but, black or white, they are rare.
We have our own kind of tragedy. It might have been a more moving gesture had yesterday’s demonstration sought sympathy for the Black Lives Matter activist Sasha Johnson, still lying in a critical state from a gunshot wound. She is one of the scores who have wandered unwittingly into a gunfight between young black men. This matters, but given the backgrounds of most of the young millionaires playing for England yesterday, should we not be asking ourselves a more significant question: why is it that for young men like Phil Foden or Marcus Rashford, articulate and thoughtful but from working-class families, the most likely path to the upper echelons of society still lies via the sports pitch?
The chairman of the Social Mobility Foundation, Alan Milburn, last week pointed out that you do not have to come from an especially poor or ill-educated home for your chances of becoming a senior lawyer or doctor to be slim, even negligible.
Paradoxically, many baby boomers who came from poor backgrounds and benefited from the explosion in white-collar jobs in the 1970s and 1980s see their children’s chances of professional advancement stymied.
Twelve years ago, as chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I worked with Harriet Harman to introduce a clause into the 2010 Equality Act that would require large public organizations to publish data on the social backgrounds of those who ran them. It was an attempt to puncture the fiction that we are a meritocratic nation where effort, ambition, and talent can overcome the disadvantages of a modest background. The metrics are not easy. In the US they worry about income and race. In Britain, where wealth stored in a family home guarantees security and allows risk-taking, we should frame a different question. I would ask how long the family had owned its home, and its value. Either way, no government has yet put this into effect.
Some of the obstacles to social mobility are financial. In television and the arts, for example, where entry-level jobs are poorly paid, those who can rely on parental support have a distinct advantage; the capacity to make yourself useful as an expense-only intern guarantee an edge over even the most talented but inexperienced competitor. Pretty much everyone knows it; 72 percent of the students supported by Milburn’s charity reckon that “people get ahead because of what their parents did/do”. Many Tories, particularly in “red wall” seats, worry their party hasn’t scented the breeze blowing through a nation that, when it sniffs the stench of inherited privilege, wrinkles its nose in disgust and demands that its government clear the air.
If we want top jobs to be seen to be open to people of talent irrespective of background, it is a good starting point to ask just how big the problem is. It is far from simple. Last week, as a board member of a thriving theatre company, I was mildly surprised to be asked on a form about my parents’ occupation when I was 14. The classifications ran from professional through clerical to long-term unemployed. I ticked semi-routine manual and service (at that age my father was working as a security guard in the US).
But there are risks in treating socioeconomic background as though it were just another kind of protected characteristic, such as sex or race. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw opined: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” While I can always change my accent, I will never be able to change my skin colour (nor want to, but that’s another issue).
Second, a mid-career university professor is unlikely to earn as much as a busy plumber (there has been none available to fix my shower for several weeks). A highly educated professional woman, if she is among Britain’s one in four lone parents, won’t feel there’s much extra cash for tutoring her children through GCSEs and A-levels. Immigrant families who arrive with five pounds in their pockets and two generations later own great British enterprises employing thousands aren’t so easy to categorize. “Parental occupation — bus driver”, doesn’t predict much if your name is, say, Khan or Javid.
Third, it’s a staple of British comedy that cash and class don’t always sit easily together. It is hard to imagine a well-born American Republican sniffily dismissing a fellow conservative as a parvenu because he has to buy his own furniture rather than inheriting it, as Alan Clark once remarked of Michael Heseltine. I once tried to persuade Clark to host a TV program with a fellow Conservative politician. He studied me carefully and drawled: “Rather below the salt don’t you think?” — posh people’s way of saying, “I wouldn’t be seen dead with her”. We Brits, despite the estuarine accents latterly adopted by many in our royalty, have elevated snobbery and class discrimination to a fine art.
All the same, the British knee no longer bends to inherited privilege. That’s progress. But there is a generation’s work to do to wear away centuries of coded opportunity-hoarding that denies merit and protects mediocrity. As part of the “leveling-up” agenda, the prime minister needs to understand this kind of inequality better. And as imperfect as the existing measures of social mobility might be, knowing a part of the truth will surely be better than knowing nothing at all.