Ever since I heard Her Majesty announce to her Lords and Commoners that her Government was intent on “levelling up” society, I have been puzzling over this bizarre utterance. The Queen is expert (nearly always) at keeping her opinions to herself. But I couldn’t help feeling that the total lack of expression with which she read this announcement held within itself an encrypted message: if my dearly beloved husband were only here, he would raise his eyes to the ceiling.
“Levelling up” seems to have taken over from “social mobility”. All the political parties bought into social mobility. The idea is that society affords everybody an equal opportunity to make use of whatever talents and abilities they possess, no matter how lowly the station from whence they start. It was not always thus. James Mason’s last film, The Shooting Party, is a depiction of life in upper class England on the eve of the First World War. While the toffs are slaughtering pheasants on a weekend shoot, Mason’s character, a landed gent, notices that a young lad, one of the beaters and the son of a gillie, is a very talented artist. He looks at one of his sketches and says, “You have it to the life!” He then suggests to the boy’s father that he will pay his son through college so he can further his talent. The boy’s father says, “No thank you, sir. I don’t want him to get ideas above his station.” Mason does not argue the point, albeit with evident regret.
The Great War changed all that. But there remains a problem with the idea of social mobility. If you think it propitious that people should strive to be upwardly mobile, then by implication you endorse the class system. A miner might wish that his son does not have to go down the pit, and may strive that he have a better life, but he might not wish that the colliery be closed down.
I suspect that the pandemic has altered our collective view of social values. What are the occupations that really matter? Who have we not been able to do without? Farmers, nurses, carers, grave diggers, and refuse collectors. (This list is not exhaustive.) We need people to undertake tasks that have heretofore been deemed “lowly”. Did not Our Lord demonstrate this when he washed the disciples’ feet? The reason why our politicians have replaced “social mobility” by “levelling up” is that they have belatedly realised that it would be a disaster if all our refuse collectors became hedge fund managers.
Of course “levelling up” has been politicised. It is really a Tory idea. We want to level up, they say, while the Labour Party want to level down. The Labour Party points out that “levelling up” is a scam, because it has no relationship with reality. The gap between rich and poor is ever wider, families are reliant on food banks, and even people in employment are officially in poverty because they are on ill-paid zero hours contracts. It is clearly absurd to think that the Tories want to turn a state comprehensive school in the east end of Glasgow into Eton. Is “levelling up” mere lip-service? Is it a sop? If it actually exists, even in embryonic form, you might expect people from “humble” origins to have aspired to positions of power and influence. I undertook a review of the make-up of the current British Cabinet.
The Cabinet currently has 23 members, including the Prime Minister. For the most part they have come from prosperous affluent backgrounds. The majority were educated in private schools. Most went to university, a couple to Agricultural College, and one to Sandhurst. Twelve went to Oxford or Cambridge. While “up”, they read most commonly the humanities, economics qua PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics) or a similar course, history, and law. Only two read a science, one physics and one chemistry. I don’t see too many glass ceilings being broken. Boris: Eton, Balliol Oxford (Classics); Rishi: Winchester, Lincoln Oxford (PPE), Kwasi: Eton, Trinity Cambridge (Classics and History), Jacob (non-cabinet minister who attends cabinet): Eton, Trinity Oxford (History) and so on.
As slogans go, I think “social mobility” is more honest than “levelling up”. The Tories have a profound distaste for the idea of amorphous mediocrity. On the other hand, British High Society is reasonably open to people who wish to join the club, so long as they are prepared to abide by the club rules. But, in terms of the dispensation of slices of cake, “levelling up” is in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics. You can’t conjure wealth out of thin air. If you really are going to go even some way to redistribute wealth, there’s only one way to level, and that is down. That fact may be unpalatable, but at least it’s on the level.