A couple of weeks ago was some news I thought I’d never hear: someone in the higher echelons of our government / state said that ‘class’ was more important for inequality / life chances and so on, than other inequalities such as race and gender. Trevor Phillips broke rank with the Blairite rhetoric that we live in a ‘classless society’ (see this for optimism about class).
Of course, the idea that background differences (of wealth/education/’standing’) is common knowledge and common sense. Money can buy better education, good manners help one to ‘get on’ (see Pierre Bourdieu), and the idea of a kid from a council estate becoming a minister or a senior business figure makes the news because it’s so unusual.
Way back in 2002 I did some work for the Equal Opportunities Commission (now part of Trevor Phillips’ organisation) and the general public, in a survey and focus groups, told us that the circumstances (class / area / poverty) of growing up were more important than other inequalities. But this would suggest we need to do something about those inequalities caused by material facts, not arbitrary inequalities of gender and race. If you made the world so that black middle-class people were just as likely to get middle-class jobs as their white equivalents, there would still be lots of working-class people who wouldn’t get the chance.
Unfortunately, any equal opportunity for the poorest people would require some middle-class people to fall down the class ladder – only half of us can be in top 50% – and this wouldn’t be a popular measure. To make things fairer we’d also need to make the differences smaller: again politically difficult.
Instead, the political consensus has addressed inequalities that, although real, are more about symbolism than improving the lot of society as a whole. Letting Oxford educated women into government didn’t do much for women at large. Letting posh black people get posh jobs doesn’t help the kids on rough London estates. At the bottom, anti-discrimination means letting the working-class compete on equal terms for a limited number of minimum wage jobs. That won’t solve the problems of an unequal society.