Inside the Kettle, facing out…

“The police are not your friends”

This was the cheery warning from @kevinward76 in response to a tweet from me about whether the police are policing for communities or corporations. His reply in full was: “Neither – the police operate on behalf of the state. The police are not your friends.”

Elsewhere I’ve blogged about the dilemma facing me (and, I expect, others like me); the police – over time – have stopped seeming like the enemy to me and have become respected colleagues. Now suddenly they are back on what I see as the wrong side in our current national debate. I am struggling to feel solidarity with the police service, even though I’m sure they face as much ignorant, high-handed and wasteful policy-mischief as local government children’s services (my own field). Instead I am starting to feel a tribalistic urge to distance myself; to position myself ‘inside the kettle, facing out’.   

The lovely and fair-minded @1stEmma who tweets and blogs in support of the police service against government cuts ( has engaged in many friendly twitter discussions with me about the role of policing in current times and always emphasises the necessity of ‘policing with consent’. This is summed up well here on the Civitas website: These ‘Principles of Good Policing’, lifted from Charles Reith’s ‘A Study of Police History’ and attributed to the original 19th century commissioners of the Metropolitan Police remind us that “the police are the public, and the public are the police”.

I don’t know the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, but because of the events there coming to public attention in the past 36 hours, I have looked at a range of video, photographic and written material, both about the so-called ‘Tesco Protest Riot’ and about the community itself. Some of the most interesting detail is from local residents, pre-dates the ‘riots’ and describes and values the creative and economic value of this ‘alternative’ community, bringing life and colour to an otherwise abandoned area of the city.

All city-dwellers will recognise the trajectory of this tale and see it mirrored in their local environment; areas that are abandoned and neglected – sometimes for years – are appropriated by alternative communities who enrich them with artistic endeavour, small-scale local commerce and community projects; these new and vibrant developments attract a certain cachet, improve the land-value of a previously blighted location and the developers move in because the pickings are now richer.

If the police are operating ‘on behalf of the state’ then it’s no surprise that they should line up to protect a shop-front but be sanguine about using their batons against people; it’s clear that our current government (and, for that matter, its predecessor) values big business over ordinary people every time. However, the police service can choose to honour the principles of good policing, of which this one seems most apt right now:

To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


That whole immigration thing.

I’m wealthy, white and British, one of five siblings and a member of an extended family spread across the globe. Things I take for granted…

My Irish migrant roots; my father’s work abroad, in three continents; my uncle’s life in Palestine; another uncle in Germany with his German wife; my cousins born in Cyprus and Germany; my time and that of three of my siblings working and / or studying overseas; my two siblings now living permanently in other (one EU, one non EU) countries; my British-born sister-in-law of African descent; my (late) Danish sister-in-law; my South African sister-in-law; my cousin studying in Ukraine, my cousin working in Norway; my cousin working in the US; my German-born cousin and his Romanian wife with their Malaysian-born infant (living in Malaysia). 

We live where we choose, we work where we choose, we travel where we choose, we marry where we love, we raise our children where we land. 

This flexibility is a pleasure and a privilege. I can’t think why any human being on this planet should deserve that less than we do. 

Cameron’s remarks about immigration are just another example of him saying “we want the good stuff for people like us”.

He’s wrong. 



Update 9 June 2012: My thoughts on this issue remain unchanged. Theresa May’s policy proposals are just vile in this context: You can follow your heart wherever it leads, unless you’re ‘poor’, in which case this Government is happy to banish you from these shores.

Saving the NHS £20 billion

The NHS has to make savings of £20billion by 2012 and today David Nicholson has reminded colleagues in the service that they need to achieve this without cutting back on the services they provide.…

So how might they do this?

Pass costs onto staff:  Making staff work longer hours and / or for less pay; charging staff for ‘perks’ such as on-site parking; implementing zero hours contracts to maximise ‘flexibility’ (but leaving staff to absorb fixed costs such as childcare).

Pass costs onto patients:  Require patients to self-manage more conditions (whether they want to or not); Increase or implement charges for parking, food & drink on hospital sites; implement or increase charges for ‘optional’ services such as baby scan pictures, skin-matching prosthetics, various ‘aids’ and equipment; increase commercialisation of hospital sites (e.g. Food outlets & newsagents).

Pass costs to other parts of the system: Increase “management overhead” charges to external commissioners (such as LA’s commissioning OT or SaLT services); implement or increase charges to external commissioners for providing holiday, sickness or maternity cover; raise charges to external commissioners above internal inflation rates; allow waiting times for elective surgeries to increase so that some patients self-select for private alternatives; reduce ‘preventative’ and other public health interventions that are not perceived as ‘acute’ services (generates costs later, but who cares?)

Make ‘hidden’ reductions to service quality:  Reduce training / CPD; amend skill mix (i.e. work previously done by qualified staff now undertaken by non-qualified staff); run more services ‘solo’ rather than with paired workers (see also passing ‘costs’ to staff as this can sometimes place staff at personal risk); increase numbers of volunteers engaged in service delivery (e.g. with labouring mothers on delivery units); remove some ‘targets’ so aspects of service cease to be measured and related service reductions are invisible.

Job done!

Happy now?

The Myth of Social Mobility

What is social mobility? 

Social mobility can be defined as the ability of individuals or groups to move within a social hierarchy with associated changes in income, education, occupation, status etc.

Social mobility assumes an unfair distribution of goods / services / benefits / advantages within a society (like a ladder with those who are more advantaged closer to the top), but in a society where social mobility is high, for any given individual or generation, their place on that ladder will be determined only by their own ‘merits’, not through nepotism, inherited wealth or status from previous generations. 

Social mobility is strongly associated with the concept of ‘meritocracy’ – the idea that a person’s status in society is or should be determined by a combination of their natural endowments, and the effort they put into realising their potential. 

In David Willetts’ 2006 lecture on meritocracy and social mobility (much quoted recently for its references to the supposed negative impact of feminism on egalitarianism), he gives this example of a measure of ‘social mobility’ to explain how it is apparently in decline.

“Someone born in the poorest income quartile in 1958 had a 31% chance of being in the bottom quartile aged 33 and a 17% chance of being in the top quartile. Someone whose parental income was in the highest quartile had a 17% chance of ending up in the bottom quartile and a 35% chance of being in the top quartile. In a world of frictionless social mobility these figures would of course all be 25%. If you then look at the cohort of sons born in 1970, for those born into the bottom income quartile the son had a 38% chance of remaining in the bottom quartile and a 16% chance of moving into the top quartile. If your parental earnings were in the top quartile then you only had an 11% chance of yourself going down to the bottom income quartile as against a 42% chance of remaining in the top quartile yourself.The trend is deteriorating. What your parents earn has actually become more important in determining what you earn.”

This is interesting to me. David Willetts is using income distribution, and – more specifically – income quartile position, as a proxy measure for social mobility. It’s a measure worth looking at, but surely shouldn’t be the only one. For example, although improving an individual’s income status may be a good thing, there will always, necessarily, be some individuals and families in the bottom quartile. Being in this bottom quartile will matter much less to your other life chances if a) the distance between top and bottom quartiles is small, and b) the quartile you’re in doesn’t influence the education you can access, or the healthcare provision, or your ability to obtain legal redress in the event of injustice.

So that got me thinking: What is the financial value of each quartile? What does it mean to move from the bottom quartile to the top? If the gap between top and bottom quartiles has grown, can that explain an increasing lack of mobility between quartiles?

This link provides a centile by centile illustration of income inequality in the UK:

What it shows is stark, even astonishing. 90% of full time employees earn less than £46,488. A primary teacher, earning £33k (approx) is at the bottom of the top income quartile. The first centile (or the bottom of the bottom quartile) is a little under £6k. So the income gap between the first 75 centiles is less than £30k.

The gap between the bottom of the top quartile (that £33k teacher) and the 99th centile   – the not-quite-top of this range – is a further £66k. That takes you to an occupation with ‘senior manager’ status. Then, above that, the top 1% have incomes that go completely off the charts. Over £1 million in many cases.

It is clear that the widest divide is not between the incomes of those in the bottom and top quartiles (although there’s an apparent injustice there too) but between the incomes of those in the top centile and everybody else.

So, for example, if we –  in the next generation – achieved a complete reversal of the places on the income ladder for the first 99 centiles, we would have the ‘frictionless social mobility’ that Willetts sees as being so important; we would leave untouched the vast and unseemly wealth of the hyper-rich and their tax-efficient arrangements; we would still have in the bottom 10% of the range people earning £12k and under. These may be a different set of people and from different families than those previously occupying the bottom rungs of the ladder, but does this make it fair or right? I don’t think so. 

What is missing from our society is not ‘social mobility’, but social justice.

What is social justice? 

Social justice can be found in societies where individuals and groups receive fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of that society. 

In a socially just society, the distribution of wages and benefits would be more even, less polarised. There would be some pay differentiation, of course; some roles and responsibilities demand more in terms of knowledge, skills or accountability; some deliver more in terms of wider social benefit. But for any of us, there are only 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week. No-one’s contribution merits the kind of £1million + salaries that are at the top end of that centile scale. And no-one – not even someone who doesn’t contribute to society through paid work – deserves an income so low that it deprives them of personal dignity and agency in his or her own life. (Not forgetting that many people not engaged in paid work contribute vastly to society in a range of ways).

In a society with social mobility those in the upper income ranges can buy their way to better health, better education, legal protection, better housing, lower crime. On the measure outlined above, providing it can be shown that some of the people also buying these privileges came from a previous generation of lower income, those who prioritse social mobility will still be content that many people have no access to any of these things; maybe in the next generation they will get their turn. In fact, if we believe in ‘meritocracy’ we may even take the view that those now on the bottom rungs of the income ladder do not deserve good health, good education etc. because they haven’t done enough to ‘earn’ them.

In a society with social justice, by contrast, educational outcomes are not determined by wealth; an individual’s access to justice is equal to anyone else’s regardless of whether that individual has the financial means to engage a solicitor or not; a family home is not riddled with damp, whether it is owned by the householder or rented from a social landlord. Society itself assures every person’s human dignity, provides for basic needs to be met and rights guaranteed. 

Social mobility is a smokescreen.

Social justice is what is required for a fair and good society.

The Willetts World-View

Much fun in the blogosphere this weekend about whether David Willetts really is ‘two brains’ or just one big, misogynist arse. Hold your fire!

In a soundbite culture it’s all too easy for a thoughtful politician to be misquoted. Daniel Finkelstein (@dannythefink) posted a link to Willetts’ original 2006 lecture on feminism and social mobility with the challenge to read it before judging whether he’s right or not. So I did. For those of you who want to do the same, here’s the link:

Having read the lecture it’s my contention that Willetts is seeing the world through a particular lens, and interpreting his selected evidence to fit this existing world view.  

Willetts is a smart guy. His lecture doesn’t exactly blame feminism for failures of social mobility, probably because he couldn’t have found one iota of evidence with which to do so. But the lecture does quite deliberately draw together two social phenomena – a) increased access to higher education and paid work for middle class women, and b) and income inequality, in order to deliberately link those two things in the public mind. The soundbites that follow are inevitable, but to help them along a section in his lecture is headed “Feminism has trumped egalitarianism”. The papers didn’t make that bit up. I believe that he has chosen to ignore the real causes of income inequality – the disgraceful way in which modern market capitalism  transfers further wealth to the already wealthy.  

He creates his own definitions to suit his politics, starting very early on in the lecture. Take this comment on Martin Young, for example: 

“his was in many ways an egalitarian vision, though it was not narrow or mean-spirited” 

Egalitarianism is a belief in the equality of all people (particularly in a political, economic, or social context). In what way could any ‘egalitarian vision’ be narrow or mean spirited? 

He goes on to say: “He did not try to pass laws to make us good. He tried to create institutions that would embody that vision. Whereas in theory he may have believed in the power of the state, in practice he worked through civil society. That is one reason why his influence lives on so strongly.” 

Hmm. Another world-view would point out that although Young’s “influence”as a theorist may persist, his hope and expectation that ‘civil society’ will achieve equality has clearly failed. A world-view which really valued the equality of all people might suggest that the time for hoping civil society will prevail on this issue is over, and that further state intervention is necessary. 

On meritocracy he paraphrases Young’s argument that ‘to lose out in a society because of bad luck is painful enough, but to lose out because you are assessed as being without merit is far worse’. Nowhere does he seem to question his own implicit assumption that there will always be ‘losers’, and it’s just how we badge their failure that matters. He comes closest to doing so when he references Young’s (justified) attack on Labour for  “a moral blindness to people who just couldn’t make it in a modern mobile economy” but the use of the term ‘just couldn’t make it’ pushes total responsibility back on the individual. It shows no recognition of the way that the ‘modern mobile economy’ itself disadvantages working people in quite deliberate and structural ways in order to transfer wealth up the chain rather than to distribute it fairly. The comment also absolutely accepts a way of valuing people solely in economic terms. 

Willetts also accepts without question a measure of ‘social mobility’ that is judged only on income

““perfect” mobility is taken to mean that your eventual income or social class are completely uncorrelated with your parents”

In fact, the use of the phrase ‘social class’ here is pretty meaningless, because as a social construct that changes over time it is notoriously difficult to ‘measure’ other than by proxies. Willetts’ mesure for social mobility is ‘income distribution’. That is important, and I could argue strongly that inequality of income distribution blights this country in countless ways (but Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have done that so much better elsewhere: ) However, income distribution certainly shouldn’t be the sole measure of ‘social mobility’. Looking at income distribution on its own comes from a world-view that looks only at the individual’s financial capacity to develop themselves. A ‘me-me-me’ take on the world, or perhaps one that would subscribe to the view that ‘there is no such thing as society’. It doesn’t look at the fairness of society as a whole or non income-related access to services. For example, although improving an individual’s income status may be a good thing, some individuals and families will necessarily be in the bottom quartile. This will matter much less if a) the distance between top and bottom quartiles is small, and b) if the quartile you’re in doesn’t influence the education you can access, or the healthcare provision, or your ability to obtain legal redress in the event of injustice. Willetts describes how we celebrate the success of those who move out of a poor family and says that we mustn’t forget those ‘left behind’. But (leaving aside this offensive way of thinking about people who may have strong attachments to the families and communities Willetts thinks they should be seeking to escape) why do we worry about them? We worry because money can and does buy you a good school, good further education, good job opportunities, good healthcare, a good death even. But in a fairer world this would not be so.

Looking closely at inequality of access to these important services and opportunities would paint an ugly picture of the impact of the modern market economy in the UK (although a similar study would produce different results in Norway or Denmark. Leftfootforward illustrates some of this here: ); so Willetts sticks to areas where he and his party feel on safer ground. He talks about family values. And he cites one study. A study for which the data shows one thing that is measurable: the extent to which earnings are higher for children who have a sibling than for those who are ‘only’ children. He then moves onto an entirely uncritical acceptance of the researchers’ explanation for this phenomenon.

“The explanation for this striking difference was fascinating. The researchers argued that the obligation to help care for parents is greater if one is an only child. Hence an only child is more likely to stay in the area where he or she has been brought up and perhaps sacrifice some of the time and effort needed to earn more. If, however, you shared these responsibilities with other siblings then you have greater opportunities to work and train more and indeed to move away.”

This is just a theory. Willetts cites no actual data to support the researchers’ argument; such as, for example, figures for ‘only’ children actually acting as carers for their parents.

He leaps from this interesting but inconclusive study to the extraordinary claim that:

“People often ask why it is so hard to abolish child poverty in practice although it is obviously an admirable aspiration in theory. The answer is that it requires a level of intervention in the family which would be unacceptable in a modern liberal society.”

Nowhere does he explain what that ‘level of intervention’ would be. He seems to think it would require us to take children away from their families, but why so? Somewhere between the practices of the Mohicans he refers to and the kind of modern social welfare interventions we see in our near-neighbours in Europe there must be some actions we can take on child poverty that are acceptable, even to a Tory. 

In a beautiful ‘pandering to his audience’ section, Willetts invites us to consider the post-war Soviet Union as an: “example of a society that efficiently matches ability with occupation, using the state to do so” so that he can then cheerfully knock it down (or maybe get a pantomime ‘boo-hiss’ from the audience). But everyone (especially a bright man like ‘two-brains’ himself) surely knows that the post-war Soviet era was every bit as likely as capitalism to develop and entrench privilege, nepotism, bribery, corruption, poverty and exploitation? 

His view of capitalism is very contestable too. He describes as a ‘crucial feature of modern capitalism’ the fact that ‘it doesn’t like waste. It may not reward merit but it certainly hates unused talent’. This is manifestly untrue. Norman Lamont famously said in 1992: 

“If higher unemployment is the price we have to pay in order to bring inflation down, then it is a price worth paying.” 

John Major was sanguine about the pain inflicted on people in the interests of ‘the economy’, saying: “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working. 

Any system that declares unemployment the ‘price worth paying’ for a robust economy doesnt give a toss about unused talent. 

We leap again, this time to education policy. “Education above all is the key for opening up opportunities and ensuring talents are not wasted”.

But again, the actual evidence of what is happening in education belies this innoccuous-sounding slogan. The current proposed changes in education make it clear that Tories are interested in education only insofar as it is looked to for providing fodder for the money-making machine. There is no interest in education as the development of the whole person, looking at an individual’s broader array of talents and values. Show us how this class or this subject (unless it’s Latin, of course) can make a person more employable, a higher earner, and we’ll value it. Otherwise, onto the pyre it goes. The ‘bonfire of the humanities’ in higher education should make us ashamed. The appropriation of what little state-finding remains available for further and higher education – so that it effectively subsidises training for big employers rather than being used to ensure individuals develop to their full potential – is a collapse into as narrow and mean-spirited definition of ‘education’ as it is possible to get.  

We are now at the centrepiece of the lecture; a section entitled: Social Mobility is declining – the evidence

Willetts says: “It is now generally accepted that social mobility in Britain is actually declining” Um, yes? And that evidence is where, exactly?

Willetts talks about two longitudinal studies based on cohorts from 1958 and 1970. “The outcomes of the 1970 cohort are more influenced by parents than for the 1958 cohort”  The only outcome considered is income quartile and parents’ income quartile; the only measure evidenced – movement from top to bottom quartile and vice versa. I can’t claim to have read the two studies, but I am convinced that two such large-scale studies will have produced a much richer and more diverse evidence range than that simple measure. Willetts provides no commentary, for example, on the size of the gap between top and bottom quartile (ie the ‘distance’ travelled to move from one quartile to another) or of the impact on life chances of being in one quartile or another. I’m not arguing that social mobility has necessarily increased, by the way, only that both Willetts definition of ‘social mobility’ and his use of measures and indicators are highly selective. 

Indeed, he acknowledges that the evidence is contested, but then conveniently dismisses the arguments as ‘long and technical’, and goes on to select commentators that appear to support his interpretation of the studies without saying on what basis he considers their interpretation supportive. He describes meritocracy as “a potent idea still not implemented”, but again provides no critique of the idea of meritocracy itself. 

Willetts wonders aloud: “Why isn’t education improving social mobility?” A clear-eyed answer would be “because that’s not what it’s for”. Education is increasingly being constructed (as I’ve touched on above) as a factory for creating fodder for employers. Employers want employees across a spectrum of ability and qualification levels; whatever happens in education there will still be leaf-sweepers, market-stall-holders, teachers, police-officers, footballers and investment bankers, and income inequality (justified or unjustified) between these activities. Another equally clear-eyed answer would be: “because that’s not what it’s for”. This time, in the sense that if education really were to become about the fullest development of the talents of an individual, it still wouldn’t neccessarily create movement through the income levels or income equality. Society should provide for all people regardless of their educational ‘level’, their professional status, their household income, just the same. 

Willetts claims that “There has been a dramatic increase in the economic returns to education and this comes almost entirely from higher education” but again, this is not really about personal worth (because it looks only at averages). Nor is it about personal happiness, or a ‘good life’. Once again this is about the health of  ‘the economy’ over the needs of people.  

He says: “If schools in deprived areas are not performing well then there is a limit to what universities can do to adjust for this.” which of course is true, but he makes an assumption about school underperformance which he does not evidence, without giving any consideration to the wider social and economic factors that contribute to (and detract from) educational attainment. He briefly points to evidence that schools are “cherry picking” through their admissions policies so that the ‘better’ schools have a non-representative intake of students (i.e. the schools aren’t necessarily better, it’s just that the students are already advantaged), but in an utterly defeatist statement says: “But it is just not possible to impose central controls that deliver equitable access. There are just far too many devices whereby parents are going to be able to play the system” School admissions is a policy area I know well and this is nonsense. We don’t regulate this properly because a) we can’t be bothered to do so and b) the way other education reforms are being developed will make it much harder to implement good policy in ths area. This ‘it’s too hard’ stance is the same world-view that allows the wealthiest to get away with taking extreme measures to reduce their tax burden but will cheerfully clobber benefit claimants with difficult forms and fines, because it can. It is a world-view that is willing to enshrine unfairness within the system because of the claim that it is just too difficult to do otherwise. If we policed school admission applications as we do benefit claimants, we would soon have a system which was implemented fairly.  

Willetts is right about one thing: we need “more good schools”. Sadly he doesn’t acknowledge per pupil funding as a key factor in achieving this. He seems to think ‘diversity’ of provision and ‘linking up with others’ will achieve the improvement he seeks. Diversity in the market for other goods and services (and franchises or chains for those services) does not achieve uniformly good service provision; it achieves differentiated service provision, a clear way of identifying and distinguishing between providers on the basis of that differentiation and a cost variation which goes with that differentiation which enables wealthier consumers to ensure they get the best of any goods and services on offer. That’s not what is needed in education.  

Then Willetts’ takes on women. He has his first little side-swipe at that terrible demon ‘working mothers’ in the Sure Start section. He clearly doesn’t know very much about Early Years though (even though there is really good evidence that intervention at this age makes a big difference to life chances. Rummage here for more on this: and skips on quickly to middle-class women’s greater participation in Higher Education. This is the much-talked-about section. The stark figures about participation levels are undeniable: BUT… firstly it is incorrect to characterise this increase in participation as a ‘feminist success’ because it has not applied to working class women. Feminism is about equality for all women, not just a subsection. Secondly Willetts doesn’t convincingly demonstrate the ‘benefit’ accruing to women from this increased participation (other than – ahem – marrying well!) In the workplace these women are still payed less for the same work as men, still less likely to get promotion, still more likely to see their potential limited by the decision to become a parent etc. If women’s increased participation has squeezed men out, it is no feminist victory, it is becausen they have been more exploitable, more profitable, more biddable. Once again it’s the employers who have benefitted. 

Sideswipe 2 is levelled at women from low-income families: “It is still a problem if you are a girl from a low income family considering whether it’s worth studying when there’s always the option of having kids and getting started with a family.” I don’t necessarily disagree with the dilemma he has identified here, just his way of presenting it. Starting a family is a two person decision, even if the two people don’t actually discuss the decision together. If a man doesn’t want to become a father, there are things he can do about that. Willetts treatment of child-bearing as a women only issue is lazy sexism, even if he wouldn’t recognise or acknowledge it. 

Sideswipe 3: “Of course we should welcome the transformation of opportunities for women. There really is no going back” Oh dear, oh dear. The unspoken end of that sentence is “to the golden era of women who knew their place was in the kitchen”. If you don’t believe that line contains intrinsic misogyny, try reading it again like this: “Of course we should welcome the transformation of opportunities for women. There is no hope for social justice if women are treated like second-class citizens. In the modern world we must champion equality for all”. Spot the difference? 

So, although I agree with the surface analysis of women’s participation in higher education, I can’t jump, from there, as Willetts does, to the statement: Increasing equality between the sexes has meant increasing inequality between social classes. 

His remarks are misogynist because he describes one example of a benefit to women (their increased participation in HE) as “just one example of a wider phenomenon” without evidencing any such wider phenomenon; he explicitly links income inequality to the role of women in society without evidencing this; he describes mothering as a ‘withdrawal from the world of work’ without any acknowledgement that mothering is in fact a total immersion into a world of work as constant, demanding and vital as it is undervalued and unpaid. He describes the historical exclusion of women from Higher Education as softening inequalities (not just income inequality) as though the exclusion of women from Higher Education was not an inequality in itself. 

As he approaches his conclusion he suggests that we need to develop:

“…a policy agenda for schools, for housing, for jobs and for families that shows we can once more make Britain a more mobile society”

Nowhere does he acknowledge that mobility between income quartiles doesn’t achieve social justice. It just means a different set of ‘losers’. Our policies should worry less about which quartile we’re in, and more about how big the gap is between top and bottom quartiles, and – even more importantly – minimising what that gap means for people’s access to education, healthcare and other public goods. 

Leaving aside the way Willetts carelessly, conflates “escape from a poor family” with “escape from poverty” (whereas it should be absolutely possible to escape poverty collectively as a family), his policy suggestions lack imagination and simply nod to traditional Tory values. He mentions the teaching of reading (he doesn’t actually name synthetic phonics, but you know which section of the speech-generator he was in when he picked that up); he mentions ‘feminising the environment’ which is just so much nonsense that it deserves a blog of its own; he references a ‘preoccupation with paedophiles’ as an impediment to men entering teaching, (as though the pay and status of teachers has nothing to do with the rate at which men enter the profession); he references home-building and home-ownership, without any analysis of the way the under-investment in social housing provision and the over-emphasis on home-ownership has caused the increasing ghetto-isation of social housing; he makes a curious attack on means-testing but without proposing any alternative (was he really in favour of more universal benefits? current evidence would suggest not). 

Towards the end of his lecture he points to a significant additional flaw in his already-flawed chosen measure: that it looks at income status at age 30, in other words when most of us are less than half way through our lives. But he glosses over this in favour of offering more trite sloganeering:   

“We know that a modern market economy can’t just offer privilege for the few but should offer a decent life and property ownership for the many”.

‘Offering privilege for the few’ is exactly what a market economy does, and no convincing economic argument can be found to suggest otherwise. It’s how markets work. More, not less, state intervention would be necessary to secure social justice for all people, men and women, and – crucially – children, to counterbalance the inequalities that the market otherwise demands. 

Willetts has quoted a wide range of sources to support his world-view. I have just one:

“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”  (Shakespeare: Hamlet) 

My world view, which I freely admit has shaped my response to Willetts’ lecture, is of a world of social justice which recognises our common humanity; a world which concentrates more on ensuring the gap between top and bottom quartiles of any income register is minimised and that access to vital services is not contingent in any way on which quartile you find yourself in; a world which reconises and values the essential human dignity of men, women and children and does not use one gender, class or other spurious categorisation to score points at the expense of another. 

David Willetts – two brains maybe, but definitely one arse. Sadly he was talking out of the latter.