The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, August 03, 2005
Revisiting Class - Part 1
by Alex Sweet

John Major wanted to rid society of it. Tony Blair prefers not to mention it. Social class is the topic that all politicians are happy to ignore. Yet if classes are simply "groups with shared market situation", then an understanding of class is crucial to understanding how our society works.

First, a quick primer. We are interested in a very limited view of class ( Neo-Weberian in the academic jargon). People in Britain today may not think of themselves in terms of class; class identities may have declined; and there's certainly no evidence of any collective class action. It is sufficient that class continues to serve as a predictor of life chances: as such it remains tremendously powerful.

Most useful is John Goldthorpe's categorical measure of class, that distinguishes four broad groups on the basis of the type of contract with the employer. These range from professionals, managers and experts (who have salary scales, career prospects and pensions) through intermediate positions (routine non-manual, technical and supervisory), to manual workers (hourly paid, closely supervised, less job security, no career structure), as well as the self-employed such as farmers, shop-keepers and some plumbers. Note that unlike the crude A/B/C1/C2/D/E scale used by advertisers, there is not quite a neat hierarchy, and money is *not* the key factor here: self-employed people will earn much more than some public-sector professionals, for example.

The power of this classification is simply its success as a predictor of the life outcomes of children. It was Pitirim Sorokin who advanced the first modern theory of social mobility in 1927. Certain occupations in society are important for the survival of the group as a whole, and these positions require a high degree of intelligence, he argued. Given that intelligence in children, prior to selection, is distributed across society, there will be a pressure for some inter-generational mobility, to ensure that the top positions are continually filled by the most intelligent.

So far, so much potted social science. Why does this matter to the Liberal Democrats? The clue's in the first substantive word of the preamble to the party's constitution: a *fair*, free and open society. If we're aiming for a fair society, we'd better know what we mean by that. Granted that certain occupational classes are more desirable than others (and I'd like to hear from anyone who doesn't grant that), any 'fair society' had better ensure that the most desirable positions are attainable by the best people of all backgrounds.

Yet in Britain today, the son of a professional, manager or expert is 2.7 times as likely to end up in such a job himself as the son of a manual worker. Class naturally correlates strongly with education, which is a key transmission mechanism between generations; but also with health, life expectancy and many other variables. To be blunt, Britain displays "considerable short-range mobility, very little long-range movement, a high degree of self-recruitment in the elite, and a barrier to movement across the manual/non-manual divide". That was the verdict of David Glass in 1949, summarised by David Heath; and major follow-ups in the 1990s suggested that mobility now is no greater than immediately after the second world war.

If a half-century of educational expansion and progressive social policies can't significantly increase social mobility, is it therefore a phantom, not to be targeted? Should we give up on greater mobility, and accept instead the orderly management of our stratified society by its self-perpetuating higher classes?

Quite apart from being indefensibly defeatist, this would be unwise. Sorokin wrote ominously that when the link between intelligence and the top jobs disappears, such periods "usually lead to an upheaval, after which, if the group does not perish, the correlation is re-established".

The problem appears intractable, and the policy challenge is immense. Yet Labour and the Conservatives are both compromised in their thinking on this issue, by their historical vested interests and by residual anxieties about their current class-based electorates. This presents the Liberal Democrats with a huge opportunity to take control of one of the most important debates going. We'll review possible approaches in a future post.
posted by Apollo Project @ 6:21 pm  
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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