The Government made a sharp right turn yesterday with the announcement of an initiative on social mobility and equality. The move was timed in the middle of other announcements about the levels of lockdown needed to combat the spread of coronavirus and the impact of COVID-19 over Christmas.
The move looks bold and helpful on the surface, but there are worrying deep-rooted aspects that require closer scrutiny. The core of the plan is for various ‘independent’ bodies to be brought under the direct government control of the cabinet office. This especially means the control of data through an ‘Equality Hub’. The underlying naked liberal philosophy rests uneasily beside an emphasis on data that suggests the fingerprints of Dominic Cummings are all over the scene.
The announcement of the formation of a new ‘Equality Hub’ sponsored by the Cabinet Office will come as welcome news to those expecting more action on the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda. That it has taken over twelve months to emerge since the current government was elected on 12 December 2019 seems slow for what was an urgent manifesto promise. But it is important to note ‘levelling up’ was an economic strategy and never based on the idea of social equality. The new initiative starts with this idea in mind and seeks to bring together the Government Equalities Office, Social Mobility Commission, Race Disparity Unit and Disability Unit under one control. At the moment, it seems the cabinet office itself will coordinate joint actions and oversight. No independent oversight is mentioned. Certainly, the Social Mobility Commission might welcome not answering to the Education Committee in future if that is the plan.
Conflicting messages and Conservative values.
Since reading the original speech, today the government www site has redacted sections and inserted the term [Political content]. This was aggravating and frustrating for the reader who questions their powers of recall. However, this is not entirely a surprise as it represents the most disturbing announcement I have ever seen coming from a government minister. It is muddled and full of inconsistencies and conflicting messages. This is accompanied by naïve interpretations of the ideas of Michel Foucault and Iris Bohnet that some might see as misleading.
However, replacing some text with [political content] seems futile since the full philosophical ‘car crash’ is on video and the text is still there as of today on the CPS www site.
In making the announcement, Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, stated things that will have enraged many groups looking for a better deal for the people they represent. In her speech ‘The New Fight For Fairness’ at the Centre for Policy Studies she said “To make our society more equal, we need the equality debate to be led by facts not by fashion. We will move well beyond the narrow focus of protected characteristics and deliver real change that benefits people across our United Kingdom”.
It was set out as "new approach to equality in this country", that would be "founded firmly on Conservative values". Yet it emerged as hardcore liberalism as the speech progressed. It had little to do with Conservative values which might explain the hurried redactions today. It seems she revealed too much knowledge of what the government is thinking in the backroom.
But the approach is muddled in complaining about a “focus on groups at the expense of individuals has led to harmful unintended consequences” she rejects “the approach taken by the Left, captured as they are by identity politics and loud lobby groups”. On the one hand, concentrating on individuals, then on the other she widens the group approach with a strategy that “will focus fiercely on fixing geographic inequality, addressing the real problems people face in their everyday lives using evidence and data”.
Added on 19th December 2020. Since writing this post the BBC have reported leaked findings of the Ethnicity Pay Reporting Government Consultation launched in October 2018. Employers back requirement for large firms to disclose ethnicity pay gaps. The conclusion is that discrimination is a real problem and not something to be covered up.
The world according to Truss.
This will seem a strange alien world to most people, especially those suffering under crushing disadvantages and discrimination or indeed both. Truss decided it was a good idea to make her world view personal with “As a comprehensive school student in Leeds in the 1980s, I was struck by the lip service that was paid to equality by the City Council while children from disadvantaged backgrounds were let down. While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write”. However, this was quickly redacted.
I would not like to have been around when the staff and head of Roundhay Comprenehsive School heard of the monstrous slur of “too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write”. The school started as separate boys and girls fee-paying grammar schools and merged to become a large Comprehensive school in 1972. It seems they first taught her to read and write. Truss left Roundhay School in 1993 to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. Indeed, the school has very high attainment at A-Levels, is currently rated outstanding, and has a collected a World Class Schools Quality Mark.
The world according to Truss will have been shaped by her comfortable upbringing and free education. Ironically, this unappreciated experience was provided by the state under a Conservative Thatcher-led Government represented by local Conservative MP Keith Joseph of Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) fame, the architect of ‘Thatcherism’ and the ‘Social Market Economy’ in the UK.
Truss herself, comes from a well-off family with a father who was a mathematics professor at Leeds University and a mother who was a nurse and a teacher. The school she attended in Leeds is in the middle of the highest quintile 5 POLAR university participation area. This means Truss conformed to expectations in an area where currently (OfS data September 2020) 50.3% of students entered a university by the age of nineteen.
It is likely her deficit in experiencing disadvantage and prejudice leads her to be prone to considerable misunderstanding. This is a recurring problem at the heart of most administrations of all hues.
The Centre for Policy Studies and why its role is important.
Truss was amongst friends yesterday at the CPS. It is a right-wing think tank with a clearly stated mission “to develop a new generation of conservative thinking, built around promoting enterprise, ownership and prosperity”.
Set up by Keith Joseph in 1974, alongside the rising Margaret Thatcher, it challenged everything to do with socialism with an extreme liberal agenda. At the beginning, its “chief weapon was the political speech” (See Margaret Thatcher Archives). There is no doubt that its original aim of promoting a Social market economy remains in Conservative Party thinking today.
The ideas of Foucault, and Bohnet.
Although now redacted, the reference to Foucault was a key feature of the message from Truss. Under ‘Failed ideas of the left’ she blindly attacked “post-modernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.” Her assertion that “In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative” seems fantastical in the light of the work of Foucault. The irony of this interpretation will not be lost on many in opposition since Focault also noted, “All systems of education are a political way of maintaining or modifying the adequacy of the speeches, with the knowledge and the powers they imply.”
He argued that knowledge serves power and that in the struggle for power it “is still almost totally hidden” and “Knowledge is not a part of this: that should not be known.” Abusing access to data would seem to be a prerequisite to maintaining power. Elsewhere he says that “Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms”. It seems Truss read too much of Foucault as a student and there may be whispers in the staffroom at Roundhay School that it was a mistake to teach her to read without adding some critical thinking. One can only guess at what the staff at Oxford University are thinking.
Truss meanwhile had moved on and become mesmerised by the thinking of Harvard Professor, Iris Bohnet and her 2016 text ‘What Works: Gender Equality by Design’. Rather than learn from the ideas and reinforce moves to combat discrimination and bias, Truss decides to reject “techniques like unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity statements”. Surely both approaches are needed to reinforce the message.
The European dimension, data, the law, and control.
In complaining that issues “facing white working-class children – are neglected”, Truss promises that “We will move well beyond the narrow focus of protected characteristics and deliver real change that benefits people across our United Kingdom”. This seems reasonable on the surface. But people with ‘protected characteristics’ are protected by the law. The problem is on the 1st of January 2021 that could all change as we exit the EU. Most of the legal protections have developed as a result of an EU framework. This could be a real problem if a government minister now thinks this is no longer important.
Unlike the Social Mobility Commission, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has the advantage of still being an independent and non-ministerial organisation. Their concerns are well explained in ‘Our Brexit work’. The concerns about ‘Brexit and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights’ are well placed. Truss could be an advanced guard probing the defences of those seeking continued rights for UK citizens. Truss will be well aware of a report from the House of Commons Library in 2019 ‘How might Brexit affect human rights in the UK?’ There is a pressing need to maintain parity with protections in the EU, making her comments yesterday all the more disturbing.
Brexit will also cause the UK to split from conventions across the EU for gathering relevant data. Of importance here is the Eurostats data system after Brexit. The UK is already separated from such data across 27 EU states. This means it will become increasingly difficult to make international comparisons. If we divert from accepted processes in the EU, it becomes more likely that data could be easily used to hide the misuse of power. This notion was central to the ideas of Foucault. He might be turning in his grave today as he realises that his work seems to have been used as a ‘manual’ for acquiring power through hoarding knowledge, information and data.
The independence of the Social Mobility Commission.
TEFS last commented on the state of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) in May 2020 with ‘Social Mobility in crisis: A 'Pardoner’s Tale'. This came after a patchy history of poor progress and its independence was under scrutiny. Chair, Martina Milburn, resigned her position in April as it seemed the SMC was not functioning. This followed slow progress that seemed hampered by a lack of support and analysis of existing data. Oversight by the Education Committee had earlier exposed serious shortcomings in a ‘train crash’ of an interview in June 2018 (TEFS 18th June 2018 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’).
Her predecessor Alan Milburn, along with the whole commission, had also resigned en masse in December 2017 (TEFS 3rd December 2017 ‘Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’).
Meanwhile, the Education Committee and the Labour Party called for the SMC to become a ‘Social Justice Commission’ but this fell on deaf ears ( See TEFS 8th June 2019 ‘Labour Reigniting the Social Justice Bill’).
Now it seems the SMC will be under tighter control in central government and betting is suspended for now on how long the current commissioners last before they resign or are pushed.
Defining Social Mobility.
This is not such a simple thing to do. Social mobility is viewed very differently from different perspectives. TEFS explored this phenomenon in detail in ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’ (4th May 2018). The ‘Economist’s Tale’ and the ‘Socialist’s Tale’ seem to occupy either end of a definition spectrum. Defining ‘Social Mobility’, and how it is measured, is necessary as a first step to identifying the target or goal of any initiative. It will be interesting to see what the government sees as progress.
In the ‘Sociologists Tale’, movement between various socioeconomic groups is of paramount importance. However, such groupings can be defined in many different ways and can add ethnicity, disability, gender to the mix. This becomes difficult to fix without interventions from the government.
In the ‘Economists Tale’, a simpler approach is taken by looking at intergenerational income mobility. That is asking, do individuals become upwardly mobile by earning more than their parent’s generation? On this measure, the UK does not do very well internationally. Along with the USA, we sit uncomfortably on the wrong side of the ‘The Great Gatsby Curve’. This term was coined by Canadian Economics Professor, Miles Corak in 2013 in ‘Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility’. Basically, countries with greater income inequality also see less mobility across the generations. The current approach of government to ‘levelling up’ seems to be a simple matter of economics and investment in jobs, nothing more.
The ghost of Cummings.
At the start, it was noted that the fingerprints of Dominic Cummings were all over the scene. It could be that he still lurks in dark corners at number 10. The move yesterday has his fingerprints on it and his ideas will certainly have gestated during his time at the centre of government. He was keen to control a considerable amount of data and its analysis to the point that he wanted to centralise its management. His need for more data analysts at No10 culminated earlier this year with a call for ‘super talented weirdos’ (see TEFS 3rd January 2020 ‘Social Mobility positions available: Only “Super-talented weirdos” need apply’) to run a “Skunkworks” more formally called an “alpha data science unit in Downing Street” (TEFS 24th July 2020 'Skunkworks' at the heart of government’).
This does not look good on its own, but placed alongside his other views on genetics and intelligence a very sinister pattern emerges into view. His essay in February 2019 ‘Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world’ concluded that “A useful heuristic is to throw ~100% of what you read from social scientists about ‘social mobility’ in the bin.”
This could still happen in an economy led ‘levelling up’ strategy. It seems that a laissez-faire approach to social mobility, predicated on an acceptance that genetics determines all ability, would dominate proceedings.
A hidden agenda?
Back in January TEFS looked closely at how these ideas were infiltrating government thinking with ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’. Cummings and Johnson seemed to be picking up scientific advice with little critical analysis and based upon their prejudices and beliefs. This is illustrated by Boris Johnson in a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies in 2013. There he referred to equality with, “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130”. Then, to rub it in, he talked of “the natural and God-given talent of boardroom inhabitants” to support the idea that in the economy “some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy”. This seems counter to ‘levelling up’ as an aim. Yet, it could all become part of an agenda we were not supposed to see.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.