by Kevin Meagher
FOR an intellectual he sure had a potty mouth. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”.
So said Anthony Crosland, Labour’s greatest education secretary, who was very nearly as good as his word. He lit the touchpaper for the comprehensive revolution in the 1960s, consigning the vile eleven-plus exam to the scrapheap, opening the way for bright kids from ordinary backgrounds to get a rounded schooling.
Until then, three quarters of children who “failed” the eleven-plus were shuffled off to a secondary modern, on the basis of a single examination, so they could spend the next fifty years “working with their hands” like the epsilons in Brave New World.
Today marks the 34th anniversary of Crosland’s untimely death at the age of 59, depriving James Callaghan of a foreign secretary, but robbing Labour of a sane and principled voice who may just have helped the party avoid the intellectual atrophy of the late 1970s and the descent into lunacy of the early 1980s.
If he were around today, Crosland would have been at the centre of the debate about “social mobility”. But it’s a fair bet he would have no time for the wishy-washy versions often put forward. He would warn against paying lip service to a potentially radical, transformative concept and argue that the risk for Labour is that social mobility becomes a nebulous, platitudinous strapline to define a sentiment, rather than a steel-edged intention. Just as the big society has become for the Conservatives.
Of course, some Tories may enthuse about creating a big society. But they will all settle for a small state. They may buy into the Burkean guff about the value of “small platoons”, but they prefer tax cuts and acquisitive wealth when all is said and done.
Even the Tories, however, find themselves able to pledge fealty to social mobility. David Willetts and Michael Gove, in particular, have made grand speeches about it, attempting to appropriate the cause for the right. No Cameron or Clegg utterance is complete without perfunctory references. The government even crossed enemy lines to appoint Alan Milburn as its social mobility czar.
Needless to say, the Tories’ real commitment doesn’t pass first base. The squalid auctioning of internships at investment banks at their recent “black and white ball” says it all. Their world is a closed shop of private, inter-generational privilege. Oiks are not invited.
But Labour doesn’t get off scot-free. Frontbenchers talk freely about social mobility – it has that suitably wonkish vagueness about it. Yet the idea – that the poor and the powerless can and must be able to transcend their origins – is potentially revolutionary.
But is it one that Labour is ready fully to embrace? Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead earlier this month framed social mobility as “the British promise”, with each generation standing on the shoulders of its predecessors. As a way of widening the debate to bring the fretful middle classes into the equation, it was a canny move. Middle England has given way to the “squeezed middle”, worried and resentful that social mobility is heading into reverse for their kids with the prospect of a university degree and owning a home beyond their means.
But real social mobility must start with education and life chances and a fundamental belief that there are no such things as geniuses and imbeciles. We are, each of us, somewhere on a sliding scale in between, depending on how our intelligence and value is measured; and each deserves the opportunity to make the most of theirs.
So private schools, those citadels of social immobility, may teach a version of history that lauds imperial warmongers and drill dates into kids’ heads in order to shoehorn them through exams, but it does not make them smarter or more deserving than ordinary kids at a comprehensive. Frankly, David Cameron himself proves the point. An expensive Eton education did not seem to have taught him the point at which the Yanks joined the Second World War.
So what should social mobility mean in practice? Well, if only seven per cent of young people are educated in private schools, but they routinely make up a quarter of undergraduates in redbrick universities, rising to half of all students at Oxbridge, why not limit them to seven per cent of university places?
That single act would do more to end our educational apartheid and generational inequality than just about anything else.
An extreme suggestion? But is it more fanciful than the political groupthink that obliges us to swallow the fiction that private schools providing a fee-paying service in the marketplace should be treated as charities – subsidised by taxpayers through the non-levying of VAT – as the wealthy and highly ambitious buy advantages for their children at the expense of everyone else’s?
The alternative is tinkering at the edges. Shaking up internships, as some Labour politicians propose, is all very well, but it is just a symptom of the malaise. If there is one thing that Labour must learn from David Cameron it is to govern boldly.
Crosland’s great contribution was to occupy the commanding heights of the debate about equality and fairness in education. It helped that he drove through policy with single-minded panache, helping make equality not only fashionable, but seemingly inevitable. A point Ed Miliband made in an earlier speech to the Fabians when he argued that “the power of successful governments and the movements that sustain them come from fashioning a new consensus which frames political debate”.
But that is what was all too often missing during the New Labour years: the willingness to force back privilege and elitism through a combination of moral suasion and intellectual dominance. Crosland succeeded in turning a third of grammar schools comprehensive during his stint at education, but it was Margaret Thatcher who closed down more grammars when she ran the education department in the early 1970s.
Somewhere along the way, Labour has forgotten how to dominate the intellectual landscape, governing for 13 years in the shadow of Thatcherism. When Labour stood tall, real achievements, such as the minimum wage, were the result. When it did not, the rancid status quo remained: David Blunkett slapped down when he floated the idea of levying VAT on private school fees or Peter Mandelson unilaterally declaring that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”.
Sex may have begun in 1963 according to Philip Larkin, but the sixties were also supposed to have sounded the death knell for our old ruling elite and the dawn of a meritocratic age where working class kids broke through in politics, the civil service, the media and the arts. Alas, more elite public schoolboys are at the top of government today than at any time since the advent of colour television.
The boulder is rolling back down hill. Last year’s intake of MPs saw the number who went to private schools rise to 35%. More old boys than new politics. Still, we should be thankful; at least it’s less than our judges. Three quarters of our bewigged friends were privately educated.
The last Labour government succeeded on all sorts of measures. Unfortunately, it only scratched the surface as far as social mobility was concerned. Flying the standard now is a radical undertaking; but Labour politicians should observe a self-denying ordinance in even using the term if they are not serious about its implications.
That is Crosland’s challenge to us: chiselling fuzzy slogans into hard-edged policy, smashing the arguments for preserving entrenched wealth and opportunity and making the right dance to our tune – in the way even Margaret Thatcher was briefly forced to do.
That is the benchmark for all those proclaiming social mobility as their cause. Let its genuine and glorious pursuit be Crosland’s epitaph.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.