Sunday 2 May 2010

Social Mobility - Dodgems and Roller Coasters

When politicians say that they want more social mobility then they should be careful what they wish for. Social mobility might go up or down. The 19th Century may have allowed a good deal of upward movement but undoubtedly there was a great deal downward, one of the effects of large families with a higher proportion of children surviving than in the past.

Our problem is to insist on basing our ideas of what is the two dimensional perspective of the notional class structure imposed by statisticians and the belief that this is somehow rigid and mechanical in its workings.

I regret that reality, as ever, is chaotic, very complicated and subject to all the chance and unpredictable fortunes, or not, of life. It is not just swings and roundabouts, it is roller coasters and dodgems and all the rest. Take the happy family above, for example. This is Mark Mac Donnell, 10th Earl of Antrim, his Countess, Jane Emma Hannah and their family. The present Earl does not use his title much, as a businessman it can get in the way of his work.

Mark, however, was very happy to become Earl. Initially, a younger son sent into the navy he was going to have to make his own way in life. His wife was the daughter of an Army Cavalry Major, Turner Macan of Carriff in County Armagh, one of a minor Ulster gentry family who went to India to make his name and fortune. Carriff is now a garden centre.

Mark and Jane with their growing family at one time could hope only for a modest prosperity that would allow them to educate and place their children. By one of those quirks of Irish politics in the late 18th Century the 6th Earl secured in Letters Patent the reversion of the Earldom of Antrim to the female line in the event of no male heir. So Mark was plucked from the Quarter Deck in 1855 to take over the title and estates of the Earldom and the name Mac Donnell.

This was much to his surprise as he had two elder brothers, both of whom died early and childless. They had succeeded their mother who before that her eldest sister, and then their father who had secured the special favour of a female descent for his title. Mark and Jane had risen in the world.

But there was more to come. The later Antrim’s were at Court at the turn of the 19th and 20th Century. One, Lady Jane Grey Mac Donnell, who left a private printed memoir in 1938, married Lord Clinton, Aide and Secretary to the Prince of Wales. Their daughter Fenella, married John Herbert Bowes-Lyon in 1914. He had a rather younger sister Elizabeth and the rest, as they say, is history.

But this is just one small part of the family. Some of the other descendants and connections are strewn about Burke and Debrett, Home, Lichfield, Bicester and others. But many are not. Where are the rest of them? The vast majority have gone off the radar to be found only by grubbing away in the ordinary records. As you go down the years so also you go down the scale of status and income. It is possible to connect both Wayne Rooney and Cherie Booth-Blair to the late Queen Mother. I did say roller coaster, didn’t I?

As for us ordinary lot, even within the limitations of the ups and downs of our own families there is a rise and fall. You start one thing, become another, get lucky or unlucky, make right or wrong decisions, back the right or wrong enterprises, make the right or wrong friends and networks and it will be different. This does not allow for health matters. One day it is all go, the next it all changes.

One of my uncles went into hospital work and for career reasons in the late 1930’s chose an Isolation Hospital. He caught TB and died young. Had he survived, he might well have become a senior figure in the National Health Service in the 1950’s. I could go round all the branches of my family and plot the ups and downs of life.

There is one key difference today however and that is Education. In the past in the Lower and Upper reaches of the middling orders, the pump house of social mobility, it was possible to move up without a great deal in the way of formal education. If anything around much of commerce and industry there was a prejudice against graduates. Work was the university of life.

Nowadays, unluckily, we are virtually at the point where is it compulsory to have a degree and to be in formal Education until the age of 21 at least to obtain the equivalent of entry clerical post. In short, the Education system and the way it is managed and used has become the major obstruction to social mobility.

It is not so much old fashioned class or money that matters but how long and where you were educated. You now often need a post graduate education to become the sort of very junior manager that my uncle was seventy years ago. As lotteries of life go, this is even worse than any of the former obstacles and hurdles.

No wonder that the ambition of so many girls is to become models and footballer’s WAG’s. At least it shows respect for the older traditions of social mobility.

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, my parents were the first and only children of their respective families to go to university on hard-won scholarships.
    In their turn, they educated me so well I passed Oxbridge entrance - the first person from my school ever to do so.
    Now my children are applying to university, we are told they face discrimination because of my level of education.

    Dodgems and roller coasters indeed!