One of the key – and, yes, (sorry) iconic – moments in one of my favourite movies, ‘Blow-Up’, comes when David Hemmings’ Swinging London photographer attends a druggy party with the hip set and he runs into one of his top models, played by an actual 60s top model, the exotic Veruschka. Under the impression she couldn’t make one of his shoots because she was otherwise engaged, Hemmings says ‘I thought you were supposed to be in Paris’, to which the stoned beauty replies ‘I am in Paris’.
Personally, I haven’t physically been in Paris for over 30 years, though I’ve regularly been there in a Veruschka sense; even stone-cold sober, I know where she’s coming from. I guess we’ve all imagined ourselves in surroundings we regard as more conducive to the people we feel we are. Combating inverted snobbery and the ‘know-your-place/don’t-get-ideas-above-your station’ default mindset intended to protect the little people from overreaching their origins is something anyone emanating from an estate will be familiar with; but visiting Paris in one’s head is often the only option. Others, of course, judge greatness by the amount of material goods they can call their own, believing ownership of such items somehow elevates them into a higher social strata because those who can match the goods to an equivalent bank-balance are who they aspire to be; get the goods and you can manufacture the impression of affluence. And making an impression is half the game today.
It’s been a staple diet of mainstream TV for well over a decade, whether in property porn shows, ‘Come Dine with Me’, the Essex/Chelsea un-reality programmes, or the ‘I-wanna-be-famous’ Cowell approach – presenting the viewers with an ideal it implies they can attain and make them better than their nearest neighbour. All feed into the same necessary fantasy generated by the National Lottery because knuckling down and putting the hours in can no longer guarantee an actual escape route, whether doing it academically or working your way up the corporate ladder. Today’s resignation of all four members of what is known as ‘The Social Mobility Commission’ is being cynically dismissed by some as political point scoring, bearing in mind one of the most prominent voices on the panel was ex-Labour Minister from the Blair era, Alan Milburn. But the Tory Peer Baroness Gillian Shephard has quit with him.
In his resignation letter to the PM, Milburn wrote ‘the Government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support’ to social mobility as it claims to do with education; he also addressed Theresa May directly when he wrote ‘I do not doubt your personal belief in social justice, but I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action.’ Milburn expanded his reasons behind quitting a post he has held for five years on ‘The Andrew Marr Show’, when he blamed the Government’s all-encompassing focus on Brexit as relegating other important and pressing issues to the bottom drawer. The Commission is intended to oversee the Government’s attempts at ‘freeing children from poverty and ensuring everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential’, though Milburn compared this to ‘pushing water uphill’.
The Government has responded to the decision of the Commission by saying Milburn’s tenure had reached its natural conclusion and that it would be getting fresh blood in. Even though Milburn claims Education Secretary Justine Greening wanted him to remain in the post, Greening herself toed the Government line re the ‘fresh blood’ remit and has stuck to the positive script despite the publication of a report by the Commission last week that pointed out ‘political alienation’ and ‘social resentment’ as well as the indisputable divisions the EU Referendum result exposed to a far wider audience than had acknowledged them before.
The oft-aired theory of London as an economic citadel separated from the rest of the country – particularly old industrial heartlands, isolated rural outposts and neglected coastal enclaves – also formed part of the Commission’s report. None of this will have come as a surprise to anyone outside of the capital (or at least its booming boroughs), but perhaps the Government will only listen when they’re told so by a committee they set-up; mind you, it doesn’t even sound like they’re listening to this one.
The report studied all of England’s 324 local authorities and upheld the postcode lottery syndrome, even if it proved to be far more widespread a division than a straightforward North-South split. West Somerset was down at the bottom of the league table, for example, and the likes of relatively wealthy Crawley and West Berkshire also performed poorly when it came to their most vulnerable sons and daughters, exhibiting a greater gap between their high and low earners. Wages, limited career prospects and the chances of anyone starting life from a lowly position being able recover from it were important factors in the report, and as a collective region, the East Midlands came out worst of all. Newark and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire were found to be the poorest performing local authorities, with anyone there from a disadvantaged background less likely to rise above it than anywhere else in the country.
Some of Alan Milburn’s recommendations in the review of ‘Left-Behind Britain’ sound like stating the bleedin’ obvious, but even if they were implemented we’re probably talking another generation before they’d show any impact, and who knows how much rarer social mobility will have become by then? Really, when one strips away familiar factors – including disproportionate levels of immigration in some areas that have further limited job and housing opportunities, not to mention savage cuts to social services – at the root of it all is the same thing that has always been at the root of this problem: class. The old saying ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ remains the mantra for getting on in this country. Not enough of us know the right people, and most of us never will.
© The Editor