Jayne Dowle: Decline in social mobility spells danger for Brexit Britain

Young people have seen opportunities and life chances diminish.
Young people have seen opportunities and life chances diminish.
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TONY Blair was wrong about many things. One of these was his confident assertion that “we’re all middle class now”. Granted, he said this way back in 1999 when anything seemed possible.

In the cold light of the second decade of the 21st century however, the chasm between rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural, north and south, has never felt as wide or insurmountable.

This is borne out by a new NatCen British Social Attitudes report which tells us that more than three-quarters of people in the UK think that the class divide is “alive and well”.

And it is getting deeper. Today only 26 per cent of us believe that it is not difficult to move between social classes, compared with 35 per cent in 2005.

All the evidence points to the fact that social mobility is in decline rather than advancing forward. This state of affairs cannot be ignored. It has perilous consequences for individuals, families and society. Set against a background of political turmoil, protest voting and a political class which seems ever more out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people, it points towards a country going backwards instead of forwards.

Social mobility in reverse is no good for anyone, except those insulated by wealth and privilege. If we carry on like this, we’re going to end up with a dystopian society riven with hatred, envy, crime and danger.

Hang on a minute. I’m not one to panic, but it looks like too many of our towns and cities are scarred with that already. People feel disaffected and disenchanted, and this is already having terrible consequences for society as a whole.

I’d like the would-be leaders of both major political parties to take a long, hard look at how they might go about reversing the trend. This is not some kind of politically-correct indulgence. Without a society which has something to live for and something to aim for, there is no confidence – or cohesion.

This new poll found that a key issue for people is public spending. It found that backing for increased public spending is at its highest point – 45 per cent – for a decade. More investment in the NHS, education and on benefits for certain groups, including the disabled, would all be popular moves and help to make people feel that they were supported by those who purport to rule.

Reporting directly from the coal face of social mobility, I’d argue that the issue of increased public spending is merely the iceberg above the water. There are some very concrete factors which are contributing to our difficulties: poor wages, child poverty, the rise in detrimental health issues affecting both children and adults, dependency on drugs and alcohol, and lack of investment in social housing, for example.

However, there is also a deep-grained shift, a narrowing of minds, which is beginning to cut off possibility and opportunity. When I was a teenager, growing up in a South Yorkshire riven by industrial strife, with pit closures and a shrinking steel industry, almost every single one of my friends had a plan of escape.

We all wanted to leave school, go to college or university, travel and experience life. When I talk to teenagers now, the limited scale of their ambition terrifies me. Even those who like the idea of higher education don’t often speak of aiming for anywhere much further than the nearest big city. The talk of the opportunities offered for travel in the work in the European Union mean little to them. They simply don’t have the confidence to even consider it.

It’s as if the stuffing has been knocked out of a generation. You can blame the parents, unfortunately. It’s not all our fault though. We’ve become a terribly risk-averse nation, bowed down by politicians who promise but never deliver, employers who take advantage, and the general deadening dread that there is always someone ready to rip us off. We draw in our horns, stay in our homes with the doors locked tight and the television up loud, and our communities suffer as a result. Our children stay at home until they are in their twenties or even thirties, because they can’t afford houses of their own. And we are asked to call this progress.

I can’t think of one single politician who could tackle this destructive culture shift single-handed. I would though like to ask all politicians to refrain from papering over the cracks. All too often we hear phrases such as “improved exam results” trumpeted as a one-stop solution to our social ills. What our leaders really must do is to look beneath; ignoring matters which are festering away can only lead to further problems. Just look at how the disconnection between public and political views on immigration influenced the vote on Europe. Do we have any politicians with the talent, insight and patience to do this? It’s about time we did.

I remember another once-idealistic Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledging to fix a country which was coming apart at the seams. Broken Britain, I think he called it. In more ways than one, it is now.