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A child’s chances in life are still too dependent on their parents

Britain needs a new type of politics to overcome many issues including social mobility, says Philip Collins


My grandfather was born in 1910 and died in 1994. During his lifetime, Britain changed from manufacturing to service, from blue-collar to white.

When he was born, fewer than a fifth of all jobs were classified in the top two social tiers. By the time he died, two-fifths were.

This is the story of John Braine’s 1957 novel Room at the Top, in which we follow Joe Lampton through the tiered class system.

Like Fielding’s Tom Jones, Joe Lampton is an orphan but, unlike Tom Jones, Joe does not turn out to have been of noble birth all along. He gets there by his own effort and his own talent. For a generation, the Joe Lamptons kept on coming.

But then, not long after my grandfather retired, a disaster hit our town as it did so many others of its type. The textile mills closed and too many of the fathers of my generation were signed off on the sick.

Unemployment is a contagion; half the children in Britain with unemployed fathers are unemployed adults themselves now. In Bury, manufacturing declined rapidly. There are wards in the town, among the 10 per cent most deprived in the country, in which a fifth of the people are out of work.

I am fortunate that mine is a story of social mobility. Having joined the bourgeoisie through education, I confirmed my place through marriage. As a child I don’t recall ever meeting a doctor unless I was ill. My wife comes from a family that barely knew anyone who wasn’t a doctor.

From a desirable London postcode close to Milbourne House, where Fielding wrote Tom Jones, we now do our best to ensure that our own children have a head start in the race of life.

In 1693 John Locke wrote a parenting guide called Some Thoughts Concerning Education, in which he recommended that children need eat no vegetables but should take care to be born to the right parents.

Locke was a better developmental psychologist than he was a dietician. The children of a pair of professionals will, by the age of three, have heard a million more words than the offspring of less articulate parents.

On their first day at school, children from poorer homes turn up less literate, numerate and articulate than their richer peers.

During the era in which the growth of professions such as law and accountancy was creating more room at the top, it was possible for British politics to offer a welcome social mobility in which some went up but nobody fell down.

We need to remember that it was never really social engineering that did the work of mobility in Britain. It was civil engineering.

Unless our time witnesses a rapid expansion in the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, then the rise of one daughter of the working class is going to require the fall of a son of the bourgeoisie.

What Gore Vidal said of friendship is now true of life chances in Britain: it is not enough that you should succeed. Others must fail.

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