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. 


2 thoughts on “The Willetts World-View

  1. Brilliant analysis. Thank you. I always switch off when i hear people blaming any gender from holding the other back. Blame the system and not the people.

  2. brilliant post (even though it took me an age to read, are you testing my concentration abilities?)I think there’s only one logical way to go with Willett’s worldview – stop education for girls. It would cut the cost of education, mean that men had more chance in the workplace and that the ladies would be happy to stay at home. Take their vote away too, as they wouldn’t be able to deal with the complexities of politics. Obviously, a lack of education would mean that more women would die of various reproducing ailments and children would probably die off like flies too. In no time at all we’d be in a world where social status is decided by willy size and who has the biggest army. People not on The Island sometimes make snide comments about the UK being like a 3rd World country and I think that Willett’s and co could make a damn fine job off making those comments reality

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