Alan Sugar is right. Nick Clegg is wrong. It’s people that matter, not “progress”.

by Anthony Painter

Lord Alan Sugar couldn’t care less where you’ve come from or what university you’ve been to. All he cares about is how you acquit yourself both personally and professionally. Your individual performance matters, but so does your emotional intelligence and ability to work in a team. He judges people on their merits as he sees them. To impress him you have to think on your feet, adapt yourself to the task in hand. It’s not merit in a formal sense. It’s about creativity and worth.

Nick Clegg has sought refuge in “social mobility”. Politicians at a low ebb of creativity and imagination tend to. Let’s take social mobility to mean ending up with a higher status or in a more elevated social class than your parents. In this regard, Lord Sugar is highly socially mobile. Nick Clegg is pretty static. The former was luckily enough to be born into a north London working class family; Clegg had nowhere to go really, but good for him in maintaining his family’s class and status.

Straight away we are seeing how ludicrous social mobility can be as a concept. It gets worse. By focusing on social mobility we exacerbate that very British bad habit of obsessing with class and status. Do we really want the measure of “success” to be your class (economic position) or status (social standing)? In measuring success in this way you only exacerbate social division and stigmatise “failure”. In a highly mobile society, anyone who doesn’t end up with a higher status or in a higher class has failed. And to achieve the supposed idyll of perfect social mobility implies a monumental and brutal task of social engineering, the like of which won’t be contemplated- rightly, because it’s monstrous.

Just before the left gets too smug, it has a similarly divisive view of the world. Nick Clegg’s Hugo Young speech has been adversely criticised by some on the left for failing to appreciate the link between inequality and diminished social mobility. This is just as bad. First, it accepts the end of social mobility unquestioningly. Second, it reduces the means to that end to greater “equality” (a lower Gini coefficient). The attitude is basically “we’ll set you the goal and give you help to fly up the social ladder and when you don’t we’ll compensate you anyway then we’ll play the game again with your kids and their kids”. Politically, it’s a nonsensical proposition.

Both the “new” and “old” progressives will fail. Clegg fails because in any rat race, most rats will lose whether you have a pupil premium or not (a policy which delivers nothing towards his goal and in fact bites against it). At least he doesn’t rely on reductionist and contested logic – gleaned from a single best-selling book – about the nature of “social mobility”. The “old” progressives are in a politically unsustainable position. Social immobility and income inequality are not simply two sides of the same coin – it’s much more complex than that. And when we set a goal of social mobility, most will “fail”, such that “narrowing the gap” quickly comes to be seen as “compensating failure”. It’s a political dead end. Don’t believe me? Just check out what people think of New Labour’s failings.

So in front of us lie two roads to nowhere. At the end of one – the “new” progressives – we confront the sneering smugness of the Übermensch. Down the other we come up against angry social division and mass resentment – both within the ranks of the “successful” and the “failures”.

This obsession with social mobility is the root of the culture clash between Lord Sugar and those he faces opposite him in the boardroom. Despite being a heck of a social climber himself, he recoils from those who place that sensibility at the front and centre of their personality. He wants people who are creative, good team-players, emotionally intelligent, and hard-working. He wants people who can adapt and initiate change; he wants them to be motivated by the process rather than the personal status gain. Amazing as this may seem, this makes him utterly (post) modern despite the gruff exterior.

He couldn’t give a fig about enlightenment man or woman. “Old” and “new” progressives are utterly obsessed with the enlightenment virtues of progress, rationalism, and universalism. So Gradgrind Gove wants to return to traditional subject matter in the curriculum, taught in the traditional Fordist way with traditional exams; a new faddism abounds driven by status obsession behind elevating subjects like Latin over living languages such as German; traditional academic higher education expands relentlessly with ever diminishing returns at ever greater cost. The confusing thing is not that students are protesting. It’s that those who have just graduated and have realised the big lie they’ve been told aren’t.

There is another way. Let’s get out while we can. Let’s put these enlightenment values in their place. They are just one aspect of humanity. Instead of measuring people by the income they earn, the social class they are in, or the status they acquire, let’s value them for the people they are.Every person has passion and talent; let them discover it.

The educationalist, Ken Robinson, cautions us against our education system which is designed for an industrial model of society – one which aims to make university professors of us all. An education and social system that allows artisans to prosper alongside classicists is a better way and worth fighting for. David Cameron’s favourite thinker of the moment, Richard Florida, identifies the rise of a “creative class”. Let’s not allow such a class to become the kings of the post-enlightenment world. Instead, why not set our sights on a flourishing creativity for the shop assistant as well as the biotechnician, instead of adopting discordant devices such as “social mobility” and “income equality” as political objectives?

None of this is to argue that class, social status, or inequality don’t exist, or that they are not of concern. It’s quite the opposite. They are of deep concern – the deepest concern. In these oblique times, though, we must realise that by obsessing with them we reinforce them. Target “social mobility” or “income equality” and you strengthen the inner walls that divide us. A new mindset that invests in people’s capabilities and values their talents, whatever they may be, may ultimately end up with a nation more equal and more socially mobile – parity of esteem removes many of the barriers to advancement, after all. It will also have stronger bonds of togetherness and more appreciation for the full range of human contribution.

At the last, I’m with Lord Sugar. The value is in the person, not the upwardly pressing status anxiety. It’s time to free ourselves from the shackles of dehumanising and misery-inducing enlightenment thinking – whatever strain of progressivism it comes in. Social mobility is neither a good nor bad thing per se. What is important is that people can discover their talent, develop their capability, be valued for who they are and the contribution they make, enjoying a level of comfort while making the most of their capabilities. And do so in a reinforcing community setting.

And while we’re on the subject, is there not a future for Labour in all this? Progressivism is pretty worthless; let Nick Clegg have it.

Instead, why not make Labour the party of flourishing creativity, esteem for individual talent and endeavour in its myriad of guises? Why not let Labour be the party of breaking down the artificial walls that we allow to divide us? Rediscovery of who we really are as people and a better society – the good society – awaits.

Anthony Painter’s Twitter feed is @anthonypainter

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9 Responses to “Alan Sugar is right. Nick Clegg is wrong. It’s people that matter, not “progress”.”

  1. Mil says:

    Never thought I’d find myself able to identify with what Alan Sugar stands for. But there you go. You’ve made it possible.

    You do however end with a soundbite – that “good society” Ed Miliband was talking about not long ago. Which is why I get the curious feeling that this isn’t you writing for yourself any more, as you did most usefully on your own blog, but – rather – a quite different Painter of more engaged Labour landscapes.

    Becoming more partisan perhaps? And less conciliatory?

    I wonder if this is where the extremes of Coalition government will lead us to.

    I would continue to hope there should still be room for intelligent dialogue across the political spectrum. At least with an eye to one day in the future recuperating a useful consensus.

  2. More partisan, no (the analysis here is aimed both at utopian egalitarians on the left and the ‘new progressives’ of the right.) Less conciliatory, yes. It’s a Keynes moment really- the facts have changed (some were quicker off the mark than me in realising this; some have yet to realise it.) There has been an enormous shift which makes reaching across the aisle more difficult.

    Until that narrows it becomes very difficult to achieve other than in certain areas: AV, penal reform, environmentalism to a certain extent. I still see a pluralist future for British politics that matches our more pluralistic society but that’s not where things currently are- instead, there’s a void in the space the Liberal Democrats used to occupy.

    Don’t worry, however, I still have an eye on the opportunity:

    “I would continue to hope there should still be room for intelligent dialogue across the political spectrum. At least with an eye to one day in the future recuperating a useful consensus.”

    Absolutely agree with that sentiment.

  3. donpaskini says:

    Hi Anthony,

    Bit of a straw man attack on the left, isn’t it? I don’t know any leftie who would define greater equality solely in terms of Gini co-efficients, for example, and I don’t think that criticising Clegg for ignoring the link between equality and social mobility implies taking the positions which you ascribe to the left. If you want to make assertions like that, a few links would be helpful to make it clear who you are talking about. Your piece is also quite weak on definitions – are “the left”, “the old progressives” and “New Labour” really all one and the same, as paras four and five would suggest?

    Your chosen alternative to social mobility and income equality actually has nothing whatsoever to do with Alan Sugar, and seems to me to draw on the ideas of R.H. Tawney and Michael Young. I think Tawney and Young are outstanding thinkers on equality and I find their analysis extremely persuasive, but they are pretty much archetypal “old progressives”, aren’t they?

  4. @donpaskini

    I don’t think those paras do suggest they are one in the same- in fact, clearly I use the left as a an umbrella term. If there’s any fuzziness its between ‘old progressives’ and ‘New Labour.’ I’ll clarify that by saying that too often the two things did converge.

    I’m not sure you can simply track forward Young and Tawney’s arguments in terms of the means and say they are ‘old progressives.’ And nor can you do so with GDH Cole and Attlee an underrated thinker in my view.) They all talked about freedom, human relations and human agency…and meant it. The main critiques of Nick Clegg’s speech on the left have focused on the ‘spirit level’ defence. And yes, that does tend, when you boil it down, towards the gini coefficient whatever adornment there is.

    So far being a straw man attack, it’s looking at the nub of the issue. Nick Clegg has an end- social mobility- but no means. Many on the left have identified a means- ‘equality’- to the end of social mobility. That values people in much the same way as the ‘new progressives’ though with considerably more sympathy. Ultimately though, it will cause resentment so it can only ever go so far (without turning us into Scandinavia if that were possible- even there social solidarity is ebbing.)

    We have to fundamentally change our discourse on the left in my view. Give Nick Clegg the prize he so values- no-one knows what it means anyway. Instead there needs to be a discussion about the whole way we think about people and society.

    Recognise the barriers and injustices, of course. Now how are we going change our culture to recognise diversity of achievement and our institutions- from the creche to the workplace- to release latent creativity. This challenge is about acceptance, belonging and esteem rather than abstractions such as ‘equality’ or ‘social mobility.’

  5. Alun says:

    ‘Many on the left have identified a means- ‘equality’- to the end of social mobility.’

    Utter nonsense. The historical/traditional/whatever goal of ‘the left’ has been/is the abolition of the class system. Social mobility implies something quite different.

  6. donpaskini says:

    Hi Anthony,

    I’m pretty sure we agree on the substance, but I’m still confused by your analysis:

    I don’t see how “old progressives” and “New Labour” converged. New Labour talked a lot about meritocracy, explicitly did not aim to reduce inequality, and the government’s review on social mobility is being carried out by Alan Milburn. An analysis which seeks to define Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Hazel Blears and Alan Milburn as “old progressives” is, to my mind, somewhat lacking.

    “The main critiques of Nick Clegg’s speech on the left have focused on the ‘spirit level’ defence.”

    Which ones? I’ve seen Sunder Katwala’s and Stuart White’s critiques, as well as a few grassroots Lib Dems – none of which fit your description. There might well be others, but this bit of the argument really does need examples to back it up. And as Alun says, I’d like to see examples of lefties who see equality as a means to social mobility – I don’t think that fits Wilkinson and Pickett, for example.

    As for the change in mindset away from abstractions to acceptance, belonging and esteem, what do you think of the following:

    “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.
    This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.”


    “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

    If what you are arguing is that we need to learn from people like Jimmy Reid and Eugene Debs (as well as Cole and Attlee), then I agree 100%.

  7. Anthony Painter says:

    @don I’ll ignore your sleight of hand with shifting my ‘too often’ into an argument of equivalence between New Labour and ‘old progressives.’ It isn’t. That’s it.

    I didn’t see what purpose ‘naming and shaming’ served other than to focus on conflict rather than the argument. But you’ve pressed so here goes. Spirit Level authors and campaign group arguing exactly what you argue they are not:

    The consequences of this argument are outlined in the original piece. Others have used conceptually similar logic.

    And Jimmy Reid- yes he was in the first draft of the piece funnily enough…

  8. Donpaskini says:

    Hadn’t seen that one, happy to stand corrected on the point about wilkinson and pickett, learn something new every day 🙂

    And sorry if I misunderstood the point about new labour and the old progressives. I think it is worth noting the similarities between clegg and some people within new labour, in some ways his speech echoes blairite critiques of brown.

    Does your analysis here tie into your thoughts about the big society and how labour should respond to that? Seems to be based on similar principles. And more Jimmy Reid is always good 🙂

  9. Hi. Yes, it fits quite nicely. It’s very interesting that Jesse Norman adopts a capabilities approach- that’s the opening for the left. Sen is under no illusion that capabilities lies on the moderate left. He’s correct. We don’t have to tether ourselves abstract ends and thud into a political dead end as a result. We can deal with the reality of things and just help people to get on where we can. And lay claim to the big society in the process. But to get there requires us to shake a few bad habits.

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