Has Britain gone feudal?

A recent study suggests that social mobility in Britain is no better now than in the Middle Ages. But Nick Clegg thinks he has the answer. Simon Wilson reports.

A recent study suggests that social mobility in Britain is no better now than in the Middle Ages. But Nick Clegg thinks he has the answer, says Simon Wilson.

Is social mobility a good thing?

In the absolute sense, yes, if that means everyone gets richer as an economically prosperous society opens up opportunities for advancement. However, in the sense in which the term is commonly used, social mobility is by definition a relative concept. And if one person or group is rising up the scale, another is falling: it is a zero-sum game. That gives the people at the top every incentive to devise all kinds of political, legal, educational and economic mechanisms to bolster their position. The extreme examples from the past include slavery and feudalism, systems that permitted next to no mobility either up or down the social scale. Today, at a much more trivial level, it's unpaid internships won by well-connected parents for their offspring and widely seen as a fast track into the best jobs that are attracting lots of flak in the media.

Is this debate still relevant?

Very much so. A study of social progress in Britain over the past 1,000 years (by Gregory Clark of the University of California) found that the descendants of people who in 1858 had "rich" surnames such as Darcy, Mandeville and Percy, indicating that their ancestors were Norman nobility in the 11th century are still substantially wealthier in 2011 than people with "poor" or artisan-type surnames, such as Smith. "Over the last 150 years, the rate of social mobility revealed by surnames is slower than most social scientists have estimated and is slower than in the Middle Ages," says Clark. "The modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy." All the evidence suggests that lack of social mobility is closely correlated with inequalities of wealth and power.

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Surely it's natural to want to help your children?

Nepotism is no doubt inevitable, but that doesn't make it a good thing. It is also necessary to place the unpaid internships debate in the context of Britain's overall political economy. The minimum wage, and an excess of university graduates whose parents are wealthy enough to support them beyond university, means that unpaid internships have become a genuine brake on the life chances of less advantaged youngsters. As former editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, put it recently, "Britain's establishment is renewing itself, like Wellington's army, through bought commissions. Mums fight for internships as they once fought for handbags in the Harrod's sale." As such, unpaid internships and the advantage they confer are highlighted by critics as a visible example of the ways in which "social capital" for example networking opportunities through parental contacts shapes individuals' opportunities. It also limits Britain's chances of developing all the talents it needs to prosper and grow.

Can't the government do something?

Last week Nick Clegg announced a new "social mobility strategy". The government will publish an annual "report card" on seven key indicators ranging from babies' body weight and the skills learnt by five years old to GCSE results and adult earnings designed to assess the success of social policies in improving mobility. These are not New Labour-style "targets", but rather a "series of dials" on the national dashboard that can "trigger a reaction" when something goes wrong, he says. No doubt this is a noble long-term ambition, albeit one which appears to create a rod for the government's back. Talk of "dials" also leaves it vulnerable to the charge of social engineering. But in the short-term, the concrete steps the government proposes are rather less lofty.

What are they?

Internships have attracted the most attention: Clegg is ending informal stints in Whitehall, and wants businesses to advertise their placements and to pay expenses. Other than that, the government's plans are mostly a rehash of existing policies, some of them dating from the Labour years. Alan Milburn, the ex-Labour minister charged with overseeing progress on social mobility, has been here before. Under Gordon Brown he set up a "social mobility panel", which came up with a set of 90 recommendations to improve mobility published in 2009, focusing on better access to elite professions. Other announced plans include Sure Start-style early intervention to stimulate the learning skills of poorer children; the fuzzy pledge to create a "world-class education system"; plus some already-announced welfare reforms. The most controversial policy and a future battle-ground for the coalition is on universities. In future they will have to prove to the Office of Fair Access they are broadening their intake in order to charge full fees. Clegg says that increasing mobility is the core purpose of this government's social policy: wish him luck, he'll need it.

Is Britain worse than other countries?

Research by the OECD, a rich-country think tank, found that in Britain the influence of parental income on one's own earnings is among the strongest of any OECD nation. Britain is just above the US and Brazil as one of the least mobile societies. Parental income has more than one and a half times the impact on earnings than in similar countries, including Germany, Canada and Sweden. Moreover, according to The Economist, Britain has become less mobile over the past few decades. "Bright poor children are swiftly overtaken at school by dimmer rich ones and have only a small chance of becoming rich adults. Only one child in nine from a low-income background reaches the top income quartile; almost half with parents in the top quartile remain there."

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.