The closed world of the ‘enlightened’ middle class
Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images   

The growth of populist movements over recent years has given rise to a new political dichotomy: Open versus Closed. The emergence of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, the vote in Britain to leave the European Union as well as the rise of movements of the far Right in places like Germany and Italy – all are occasionally bracketed together and said to be driven by citizens who fall firmly in the Closed camp of this new binary.

Conveniently, this alternative to the traditional Left-Right spectrum has been adopted almost exclusively by those who purport to sit on the Open side of the fence. It is, in other words, a label that is at once flattering to half of the equation and damning to the other. Thus when the former Prime Minister Tony Blair (an early adopter of the term) declared in 2007 that the “real dividing line to think of in modern politics has… more to do today with… open versus closed”, it was clear which side he viewed himself and New Labour as being on.

In fairness, Closed is not a bad appellation when applied to anti-immigrant movements of the far Right. In defining themselves through virulent hostility toward both globalisation and immigration, much of the far Right wishes to retreat behind the comfort blanket of an idealised nation state, self-reliant and closed off to the outside world.

If Open versus Closed has any value at all it is in the fact that we have created a meritocratic order that is open to some while being firmly closed to others

During her 2017 election campaign France’s far Right leader Marine Le Pen echoed those who say the old divisions have melted away and been replaced by something new. “There is no rightwing and no leftwing anymore,” she said, “there is only those who support globalisation and patriots.”

A division that may be useful in describing the extremes is, however, unhelpful when applied to the swathes of people who fall somewhere in between, particularly in Britain.

In this country it is more accurate to look at contemporary politics through the prism of social mobility. The extent to which a person is socially mobile even appears to dictate whether that person is likely to adopt some of the attitudes superficially associated with being Open or Closed – more on that later.

The prevailing view of social mobility in Britain is that there is less of it than, say, half a century ago. Everyone from the former Prime Minister John Major to the General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady have talked, respectively, of a “collapse” and a “reverse” in social mobility. This slots comfortably within the general mood of nostalgia that is engulfing politics – be it in the revived enthusiasm for grammar schools or nationalisation.

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Yet the notion of a golden era of social mobility is in some respects a myth built on the post-war expansion of the professions. The growth in white-collar occupations after the Second World War created more room at the top, and so a larger number of working class children were drawn into the middle classes. In other words, social mobility was predominantly driven by structural change, rather than any particular policy.

The big change today is the gulf between those who go to university and those who do not. As Professor Mike Savage of the London School of Economics notes in his exceptionally detailed book Social Class in the 21st Century: “there is a tightening association between graduate status and membership of the most advantaged groups in British society”.

Half a century ago it was the exception to go to university. Today, due to the professionalisation of many jobs and the expansion of higher education, it is unusual to encounter a young professional who has not gone to university. According to Savage, while just over half of what he defines as the “elite” have a degree, this figure increases to two-thirds for those aged between twenty-five and fifty.

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In one sense there really is a good deal of social mobility – it’s just contained within the middle and upper echelons of British society. As Savage puts it, a meritocratic “elite class has often achieved its advantaged economic position through performing well in the education system and then succeeding in the cut-throat world of high-level professional and managerial employment”.

Graduates, in contrast, are largely absent from the ‘precariat’ – typically unstable labour without pensions, holiday or sick pay – where the majority have no qualifications.

Moreover, the new meritocratic elite clusters around urban centres, particularly London, which “operates as the unquestioned centre of elite geography,” according to Savage.

In one sense there really is a good deal of social mobility – it’s just contained within the middle and upper echelons of British society

The contemporary debate around Open versus Closed is focused almost entirely on those deemed Closed. Blame for the fact that many formerly industrial towns voted for Brexit is laid at the door of a sort of cultural malaise, where material explanations give way to a blame-game grounded in the allegedly ‘backward’, ‘regressive’ and ‘closed’ nature of certain communities and the people who live there. Our current political predicaments are thus attributed to a set of attitudes rather than any economic system or policy.

In this sense, Open versus Closed offers a convenient ideological model of the world for those who refuse to believe in any alternative to the status quo. After all, if Britain’s problems can be solved simply through a change of heart – an ‘opening’ of the mind to a different way of life – then little really needs to change at all, and certainly not for those who have done well out of the existing order.

Correspondingly, those who find themselves cut adrift in contemporary Britain – marooned in small towns where industry has been replaced by call centres, distribution sheds and supermarket checkouts – are effectively told that there is little to be in revolt about.

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Yet these types of job – documented in more detail in my book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low Wage Britain – are increasingly part of the life that awaits those without qualifications when they leave school. The fact that a growing number of young people also go to university – on the surface a good thing – compounds the sense of failure for those left behind, who no longer have many of the routes into skilled work that existed in the past.

To try and erect a dichotomy based solely on a supposed cultural chasm – the enlightened versus those who wish to stop the world and get off – misses something far more significant. If Open versus Closed has any value at all, it is in the fact that we have created a meritocratic order that is open to some while being firmly closed to others. Indeed, Open versus Closed is less useful as a marker of a person’s perceived enlightenment, than as a description of the barriers imposed on non-graduates by the professionalisation of our economy.