Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Social Mobility (Revisited)

One of the pleasures of researching you family history is finding out where you come from.

I, for example, have discovered an ancestor, Joseph Maiden, who was a hunt servant in Cheshire and Staffordshire during the 19th century. His reputation was such that there is a chapter devoted to him in a history of the Cheshire Hunt and he appears in a  prominent position on a painting which hangs in the Hall at Tatton Park. There's certain irony in the fact that I have always been vociferously anti-blood sports, but yet owe my existence to fox hunting. Conversely, I am immensely proud of this ancestor, of low birth but revered by the aristocrats for whom he worked.

Moving on a couple of generations, my paternal great-grandfather, born in a small village near Bridport, Dorset, also spent his life in service to the aristocracy, becoming stud groom for the Earl of Guildford at his stately home in Kent. My grandfather also started his working life on the estate as a stable boy, but became a mechanic/chauffeur when his lordship invested in horseless carriages. World War I saw him enlist as a driver, and afterwards he joined Kent Police. With the advent of the Road Traffic Act in 1930, he was put in charge (as a sergeant) of the force's Transport section. He was a well-regarded officer whose reputation remained in the force long after retirement.

On my mother's side, my grandfather, abandoned by his father when his mother died, joined the Royal Navy and rose to the rank of Chief Petty Officer.

My parents were bright kids. My dad won a scholarship to the local grammar school (pre-1944 Education Act) and my mother trained as a typist at a Commercial School (a forerunner of the Technical schools which came along in the 1950s). Dad had a career as an insurance underwriter, specialising in insuring transport fleets, and my mum realised an ambition to run her own dancing school. They grew up in wartime, with rationing, but for the whole of their adult lives they were able to enjoy free healthcare, a full, uninterrupted employment record, a retirement in their early 60s with a generous (non-contributory) final salary pension scheme. They sold their house in the south east and retired to Devon (a long-held ambition) and had over 20 years of leisure, supported by a good GP who kept them in good health well into their 80s.

I was part of the generation of girls, born in the 1960s, who were encouraged to believe that they could achieve everything that their male counterparts could. I, too, went to a grammar school (it was Kent, which never fully embraced the concept of comprehensive education). With a white-collar father and a dancing teacher mother, we had become middle class; not cash-rich but with the values and aspirations of the post-war middle classes. 

I was the first generation to go to university. I forged a career in local government, providing administrative support in Education (in line with my philosophy that in order for teachers and schools to operate effectively, they need excellent admin support from a local authority which can serve the whole community). 

Overall, then, our family has been one which has benefited from social mobility over the last 150 years. Each generation has done a little better than the last, and while none of us have changed the world individually, all of us have made a small difference. Joe Maiden proved that it was possible to beat the toffs at their own game; my grandfather went from serving the aristocracy to serving the public; my mother defied convention by running her own business at a time when married women did not usually go out to work (and giving up a 'safe' job in an office to do it). 

So why, now, have we come to a point when this social mobility is moving rapidly into reverse? My career ended when I was outsourced and subsequently paid off. My partner, also a lifelong public servant, took a substantial pay cut in an organisation decimated by the sudden departure of hundreds of his colleagues before himself taking voluntary severance. My son, also a bright kid, is unlikely to be able to afford to go to university, thus reversing a one-generational trend of educational improvement. My daughter will have to overcome not only the challenges of having a disability, but the institutional discrimination of a welfare system which presumes malingering and fraud and insists on "work" at all costs while failing to offer support to the vulnerable in the workplace who will inevitably struggle in this new age of entrepreneurs (am beginning to hate that term!)

"Middle class" now seems to encapsulate people who would have been considered "very wealthy" when I was growing up, and who, to be frank, are little different from the super-wealthy who ran the country as their plaything under the coalition and the Nasty Party Redux that followed. Politicians were obsessed with "kids from poor backgrounds" while ignoring the millions of ordinary families who are above the breadline and not claiming benefits, but for whom social mobility is now proving just as difficult as for those from the poorest households. The difference is that there are no pupil premiums, bursaries or targeted schemes for them. One of the positive things about EMA was that it allowed families with an income of just under £30k pa to benefit in a small way (£10pw). There is very little support for anyone who is not actually on a "benefits-only" income. So, obviously, it was scrapped by Michael Gove in an early act of political spite. Tax credits are being reduced so even the small amounts that moderate earners receive is being scaled back, and now restricted to only the first two children, unless the mother can prove she was raped (how is that for dystopian?)

My partner and I spent nearly 20 years quietly contributing to the wellbeing of others. We were the sensible kids who worked hard at school, got our qualifications and sensible jobs. We sensibly paid into pension schemes. We did not earn huge bonuses; our salaries were modest (but good by local government standards). We were never in danger of losing our Child Benefit due to our income level. We did not live extravagantly or have huge amounts of personal debt. We had just reached a point where we did not have to check our bank balances before making any outgoing payment, and had even dared to hope we might be able to afford a second holiday each year. We have done everything that society has told us to do to be good citizens. And then all that was stripped out from under us. 

Not only is the gap between the very rich and the very poor widening, but there is now a vast chasm opening up between the lower- and upper- middle classes and it is a cultural, rather than an economic divide, stoked by populism born of xenophobia. Despite the bleating of a few London journalists, most of us are never going to earn £80,000 a year (or anything close to it) no matter how aspirational we are or how hard we work

For those of you considering voting for the "strong and stable" government of Theresa May's Conservatives, know this. Despite her conciliatory tone on the steps of No 10 when she fell into the job of Prime Minister (most of us have to go through rigorous recruitment and selection to even get a job, much less run the country) she doesn't have ordinary people's best interests at heart. Another Tory government will be the end of the NHS, our children will again be subject to the educational segregation of grammar schools and we will be governed by those who think we should be grateful to do low paid work while they enjoy a good salary, expenses and substantial earnings outside of politics.

The Labour Party is not perfect, and anyone who's seen some of the right of the party pontificating on social media (and regular readers of this blog) will know how utterly venal some of its members can be towards so-called comrades, but the policies the party is putting forward now represent a sea change from the timid neoliberalism of the New Labour years. We've gone from "not wanting to be the party of people on benefits" to being"the party of giving a toss about things" in just a few short years

So you don't like Jeremy Corbyn? He's "unelectable" (apart from two leadership elections and most of the bye-elections fought under his leadership). He's "not a leader" (as if hiding away from the public in your £1,000 leather trousers and only taking questions from chosen journalists is "leadership"). OK, so which of his policies don't you like? Only taxing the 5% at the top of the income scale? Building really affordable homes? Keeping the NHS free from US-style markets and insurance-based services? No. Most objections seem to be that he's a bit weird/scruffy. The most serious charge levelled against him ("friend of terrorists") might be defendable if it weren't for the people his opponents call friends. Let's face it, compared with the dystopian future we all face under the Conservatives, I think we can put up with a man with a bike and a beard, don't you?

Oh, and fox hunting? My ancestors notwithstanding, it's a barbaric sport which should have died out in the 19th century.

1 comment:

  1. A superb article. Seriously, send it to the Guardian!