Friday, 31 May 2019

Post-Farage Politics

Nigel Farage quickly identified two key opportunities in British politics in the first decade of this century. The first was that in an era of party hegemony and popular disaffection, with New Labour so secure in government that general election turnout declined from 71% in 1997 to 59% in 2001, the field was open for an insurgent. The traditional assumption that any successful insurgency would come from the centre of the political spectrum was in abeyance because the centre was in power, and Euroscepticism offered a unique selling point that while marginal for most voters was not inherently rebarbative in the way that the immigration-focus of the BNP and other far-right groups had been. By emphasising federalism and sovereignty, along with traditional populist tropes about excessive bureaucracy and state interference, UKIP was able to build an insurgency on the right that was sufficiently respectable to justify access to the public forum.

The second opportunity was the media's attraction to a colourful character lacking a content-filter, both as a goad with which to irritate the message-managed main parties and as a provider of reliable clickbait in a rapidly changing media landscape. So long as the racism and bigotry was deniable, at a time when both Labour and the Conservatives were happy to indulge "legitimate concerns" and similar dog-whistles, Farage could present himself as a normal guy who channelled the views of "the patriotic, decent majority". The dynamic nexus of these two opportunities was in low-turnout elections covered by the national press. In general elections, where hyperbole was common and policy substance important, UKIP could only ever be a marginal protest vote. In European Parliament and local government elections, where the established parties went through the motions or were deliberately uninspiring, UKIP were able to provide both a more compelling protest for voters and greater entertainment for the media.

The rise of UKIP between 2004 and 2014 was all about elections, including internal leadership contests. Farage famously resigned as party leader in 2009 and then re-stood for the same role in 2010, and the "will he/won't he" of his ongoing relationship with the party would remain a fixture of press coverage after 2016 until his resignation as a member in late-2018. Though Farage has decided to dispense with the need for internal elections in the Brexit Party, it is clear that this is because his personal brand is now so well-established that he no longer needs the contrived jeopardy of an internal power-struggle to maintain his profile. He can rely on the BBC to invite him onto Question Time or Today regardless of his official standing or audited support. Last week's European Parliament election was not simply a triumph for the Brexit Party (insofar as 32% of a 37% turnout can be considered a triumph), it was a triumph for the Farage political playbook.

The greatest evidence for this is ironically to be found among the "remain alliance", which notably failed to formally ally but is insisting that it really won the ballot with 40% of votes cast "against Brexit". Not only did they turn the election into a single-issue opinion poll, but they ran a campaign heavy on visceral emotion and light on policy: "Bollocks to Brexit". The similarities are also institutional. Though plenty of people have contrasted the slickness of the Brexit Party and the incompetence of Change UK, both outfits are member-sceptic, framing politics as passive consumption and relying on centralised fund-raising to substitute for social embeddedness. Some of this reflects wider trends - the business firm model of party organisation, the turn to populist rhetoric, the increasing reliance on social media etc - but a lot of it is specific to the UK and in particular to the influence of Farage. While it is legitimate to accuse him of importing the American right's political "grift", Faragism is at heart a native development intimately bound up with the internal tensions of the Conservative Party and the dynamics of the UK media.

One thing that Farage has helped popularise is the idea of elections as a free-hit. You can think of this either as an unserious preference for the gestural or as a cynical belief that elections change nothing. There's always been an element of this in the Liberal Democrat proposition, particularly in respect of by-elections, which famously blew up in their faces over tuition fees when they discovered they were expected to honour their expressive promises, but Farage has made no bones about his unwillingness to take responsibility for his own actions, insisting at various points that it is for the EU or Conservative Party to react to "the will of the people". It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that, if the Brexit Party stands at the next general election and wins some seats, it could find itself in a fragile coalition with the Tories, but it is hard to imagine Farage & co playing anything other than a destructive role. Insofar as the Brexit Party will have any policies for government beyond Brexit itself, they will likely be reheated Thatcherism: a disaster capitalism in which every disaster demands more capitalism and less state.

Part of the attraction for Farage's supporters is that he promises them the luxury of a defence of principle that is free of consequence. This is the inverse of the traditional "I'm not a racist, but …" stance, where consequence (GP queues, housing) was held to override principle (anti-discrimination). Now a metaphysical sovereignty is held to trump all real-world considerations, leading to the paralysis of politics. Much of what was subsequently derided as "unicornism" in 2016 centred on this type of cognitive dissonance, in which predictable outcomes were blithely dismissed as unlikely or of no consequence. For example, that we could stop EU migration without leaving the Single Market, or that exiting the EU's political project would have little bearing on our future trading relationship with the bloc. The current advocacy for no-deal rests on the idea that it won't really make much of a difference - that "project fear" has been overblown and "WTO rules" are a more than adequate substitute - which implies that staying in the EU wouldn't make much difference either.

This style of reasoning has infected the remain side of the argument too, with many now insisting that Brexit should be resolved through a binary choice between no-deal and revocation on the grounds that we're facing no-deal by default in October and, presumably, on the calculation that many leavers would reject no-deal or abstain. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it is that a prospect as calamitous as no-deal can be normalised by a combination of insouciance and a truculent desire to piss-off the other side. The result is a recklessness on the part of many remainers that puts Cameron's decision to call the original referendum in the shade. That so much of the contemporary remain campaign's focus is on virtue - Boris Johnson's "lying", Alastair Campbell's "persecution", the Brexit Party's opaque funding - is both a reflection of their unconvincing case (whether a return to status quo ante or the delusive aspiration of "remain and reform") and a tribute to Farage's demagogic example.

However Nigel Farage's political career ends, whether in ignominious defeat or elevation to the House of Lords, British politics will bear his imprint. This will be seen less in the party formation than in the attitude of the public towards elections. Voters have become more disaffected and promiscuous over time, but that is a trend that predates Farage and is the result of neoliberalism (as outlined by political scientists such as Peter Mair and Colin Crouch). What Farage has done is convince voters that elections can be used as proxy referendums. Despite "never again" reactions after 2016 and the ongoing tension in Scottish politics, the establishment will probably employ referendums more in order to avoid polluting the parliamentary system. The trick will be to manage them better than the Tories did under Cameron, hence the popularity of citizens' assemblies and similar managerialist constraints in centrist thinking. The legacy of Farage may be greater popular democracy, and one consequence of that may be a growing intolerance for the House of Lords, in which case his hopes of a peerage may ironically be dashed at the last.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

After Virtue

A feature of the last 24 hours has been the number of centrists who have expressed sympathy for Theresa May and been disgusted at the "lack of compassion" shown by her critics. This extends well beyond the scolds of the commentariat to include politicians of other parties and various concerned civilians on social media, suggesting that it is characteristic of the centrist worldview rather than just a conventional journalistic trope. It is also more than just tone-policing or performative civility. It is a preference for politics as the struggle for individual self-actualisation, rather than the collective struggle of conflicting class interests, which relegates the social in order to meet the demands of a solipsistic character arc (the Fleabag theory of politics, perhaps). The sympathy for May, a woman who has shown scant sympathy for others, is a form of political fan-fic. That Jess Phillips has been prominent among her sympathisers is no more surprising than May's own trite shout-out to feminism in her resignation speech.

This contrasts with the centrist commitment to the technocratic, depersonalised management of society. The sympathy for May's personal failure is the flip-side of a willingness to treat people as numbers or mere cyphers, such as her own long-standing obsession with "immigration figures" or the centrist pathology of the supposedly uniform working class. The tension between the individual and the collective is at the heart of neoliberalism. One reason why centrists insist that the term is meaningless is that the "neo" element, grafted onto the traditional liberal ideology of private interest and a restrained state, is a positivist approach to the management of society that is fundamentally prescriptive and authoritarian. This can be finessed to a certain extent by presenting the state as an enabler of opportunity or a safety-net for the less fortunate, but the truth is that neoliberalism is totalitarian in its ambitions, specifically in using the state to convert all social life to market relationships.

This was blindingly obvious during the New Labour years, and it is no coincidence that the era also saw a marked shift towards mawkishness in political spectacle, from Blair's creepy language to the cult of Mo Mowlam. Though New Labour as a "progressive" political force was ostensibly consequentialist in ethical terms - hence the festishisation of "evidence-based policy-making" - its conservative instincts meant that it was equally subject to the deontological (notably the rights entail responsibilities schtick). As it became intellectually exhausted with the eclipse of the Third Way and damp squibs like "stakeholding", its ethics shifted towards the "virtuous" in the sense that policy was justified not only on utilitarian grounds but on its intrinsic moral quality. The result was an aggressively judgemental approach to social welfare and a delusional foreign policy excused by appeals to "sincere belief" and "good faith".

Though May is obviously a very different person to Cameron, and her style of political management chalk to his cheese, there has been a consistency between their administrations when viewed in ethical terms. After the tensions of the New Labour years, in which the Blair and Brown contest was as much about the deontological and the consequential as it was about personality, the Coalition years marked a turn away from both the consequential (e.g. the self-defeating nature of austerity) and the virtuous (e.g. the "betrayal" on tuition fees). Since 2015, the government has been solidly deontological in its ethical stance, hence both Cameron and May's unreflective ease with the idea of duty and their disregard for both the consequences of policy and such incidental matters as the truth. This should remind us that Conservatism is ultimately a disposition rather than a philosophy.

These different ethical strands were evident in May's statement at the lectern in front of Number 10. There were plenty of explicit and implicit references to duty, but what really stood out was her self-regarding emphasis on her own virtues: loyalty, perseverance, service to country etc. Her attempts at a consequential audit, listing issues such as climate change and Grenfell as if she'd achieved something of substance, fell predictably flat. Tory MPs and commentators have since picked up on and emphasised her sense of duty (she'll presumably get a peerage in due course), while centrists have apparently had their heartstrings tugged by her sad denouement at the end of series two. Like Blair before her, albeit over a much shorter time, she has gone from dominant to despised. Similarly, her decline has also been marked by an increasing emphasis on virtue, despite her obvious shortcomings in areas such as courage and honesty.

One reason for this shift is that when doctrine has become irrelevant and pragmatism impossible, virtue is all that you have left. May has been hoist by the petard of her "No deal is better than a bad deal", while her strategic miscalculations, notably in trying to use Brexit for partisan gain, have left her with no room for manoeuvre. Her pathetic "I did my best" is both an admission of defeat and the whine of a child who thinks "It's not fair". Her simpering about compromise was hypocritical chutzpah. Another reason why her appeal to virtue has been well received by centrists is their expectation that the next Conservative Party leader, and therefore Prime Minister, will be notable for his lack of virtue. The result has been a greater show of sympathy for May than Cameron in the aftermath of their respective resignations, despite her history of authoritarianism and his social liberalism. The different reception is not because one ended with a choking sob and the other with the blithe humming of a tune, but because of the fear of what's next.

The irony is that Boris Johnson's lack of virtue is probably what the Tories now need. Assuming he is elected party leader and thus enters Number 10, it seems likely that we will leave the EU on the 31st of October without a deal (though there may well be an emergency agreement on a transitional period to avoid a cliff-edge). However, if there is to be any chance of that outcome being avoided, it will require either a reverse ferret of truly gargantuan proportions, and Johnson is perhaps the only Tory politician with both the popularity and insouciance to pull it off, or the gamble of a snap general election, and Johnson is the only leadership candidate conceited enough to believe that he could personally shift the polls with immediate effect. That he is untrustworthy (though arguably no worse than May) and opportunistic (though arguably no more than Cameron) may turn out to be useful vices.

Friday, 17 May 2019

End Times

The current apocalyptic air of political commentary is not a new development, despite the well-publicised angst over Nigel Farage's renewed prominence and the belief that, as Ian Dunt puts it, "Both parties [are] frozen in terror as Brexit destroys the system". The trope of ruin is a longstanding feature of British politics, going back through Thatcher's hyperbole in 1979 and Churchill's "gestapo" jibe in 1945 to the Zinoviev letter of 1924. The common characteristic is the Tories' fear of Labour, whether the latter is presented as a growing menace or as a declining faction of extremists and incompetents. What is relatively novel today is that the Tories aren't in control of the narrative, which has resulted in a shift in focus from the economy and society (i.e. the threat to material interests and privileges) towards the specialised interest of the political system itself. This has played to the advantage of centrists and constitutional obsessives (often the same people), but it has also paradoxically led to an even more extreme reading of events in which both the main parties are assumed to be heading for extinction.

The latest opinion polls suggest that not only will the Brexit Party win the most votes next Thursday but that Labour may be relegated to third, behind the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives may find themselves way back in fifth place behind the Greens. This seems unprecedented, but only if you haven't been paying attention. UKIP "won" the 2014 elections to the European Parliament with 27% of the vote, while Labour got 24% and the Tories 23%. In the 2009 election Labour got only 15% and was relegated to third, as UKIP got 16% and the Tories came first with 27%. In other words, we've been here before and the party system survived. You could argue that UKIP's good showing in 2014 was a contributory factor to the Tories acceptance that a referendum on EU membership was unavoidable, but you can't argue that it was a harbinger of a failure of the traditional two-party system, not least because the Tories won in 2015 and both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats imploded. That the 2017 general election saw Labour and the Conservatives post their best combined share of the vote since 1970 should also not be ignored.

The European Parliament election is clearly little more than a large-scale opinion poll on the state of Brexit. For many journalists this is about "the people sending Parliament a message", yet the distribution of votes suggested by recent polls is not dissimilar to the current balance of opinion in the Commons in that there isn't a clear majority for either no-deal or revoke. If we combine the Brexit Party and UKIP, the polls suggest the implied no-deal vote will be just shy of 40%, while the combined vote for the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Change UK will be around the same mark. Even if the Conservative and Labour votes erode further, it is difficult to see either the no-deal or revoke position getting close to 50%, and that's without acknowledging that quite a few votes in each column aren't for an uncompromising hard Brexit or immediate revocation but are likely to be variations of "just get on with it" or a belief that there should be a second referendum on the government's proposed deal.

But while there is little reason to believe that either Nigel Farage or whoever replaces Vince Cable will be the next Prime Minister, it is reasonable to suspect that a reconstitution of the political landscape is underway. The breakdown of the recent YouGov poll shows that Labour's vote remains more resilient than the Tories. It's clearly divided, with leavers attracted to the Brexit Party and remainers to the Lib Dems and Greens, but it is nowhere near the mass desertion the Tories are facing. It is also clear that Labour's support is weighted towards the young while the Tories haemorrhage to the Brexit Party is weighted towards the old. The implication is that the bulk of the Conservative Party not only wants a hard Brexit but that it wishes to move towards a more generally reactionary position, hence the emphasis of the contenders in the current leadership phoney war on law-and-order and national security, and the party hierarchy's reluctance to address Islamophobia. It also suggests a future of decline.

Theresa May's admission that she is going to resign as party leader, possibly as early as the first week in June, has put the final nail in the coffin of the cross-party talks with Labour. Though both sides will spin the outcome to suit their own narrative, it's clear that the underlying problem was May's unwillingness, or more accurately inability, to make a substantive compromise because of the opposition of her own backbenchers. Labour had more theoretical flexibility in that it could have agreed to forgo a confirmatory referendum if the government had committed to a permanent customs union, but it is undoubtedly relieved that it didn't have to make that choice, not just because of opposition within its own ranks but because of fears it would be stitched up by a future Tory administration reneging on its side of the deal. Assuming the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is voted down next month, this means that a deal cannot be passed by the current parliament, which increases the chance of a general election.

A new leader of the Conservative Party means a new Prime Minister and that could result in either a snap general election to secure a majority for a "managed no-deal" or a vote of no confidence, assuming the new administration tries to sit on its hands until October's cliff-edge, in which Tory remainers finally rebel in numbers. Though the assumption is that this scenario is most likely if Boris Johnson is elected leader, there's a good chance it will happen regardless of who gets the top spot as it is now clear that the membership will only accept a committed no-dealer. With such a decisive shift, it is difficult to believe that liberal Tories - even opportunists like Jeremy Hunt - will stay in the party, so a split among Conservative MPs is likely. The inexorable logic of the British political centre, as the SDP learned and Change UK are now discovering, is that you have to fold into the Liberal party to stand any chance of survival. Ironically, the coalition years have made that prospect much more palatable for socially liberal, remain-supporting Tories.

One obvious result of a reconfiguration of the centre-right is that the Lib Dems will have to give up the idea (which existed more as a fiction in the media than a reality on the ground) that their principal opponent is Labour. Outflanking on the left made tactical sense during the years of Blair and Kennedy, but it was shown to be a bait-and-switch under Clegg and there is no reason to believe that the party's current relative success is down to its ability to attract former Labour supporters. If anything, it is winning back the middle-class voters who deserted it in 2015 for the Cameroonian Tories. Labour's vulnerability among the young and metropolitan is to the Green Party, however that is unlikely to lead to lost seats while we retain first-past-the-post. Similarly, leavers who desert Labour for the Brexit Party next week are unlikely to switch en masse to the Tories in a general election (and despite Farage's claims, the Brexit Party are unlikely to stand if the Conservatives commit to no-deal). Farage is a protest vote but Johnson would be a protest too far.

The one factor in all this speculation that we shouldn't forget is the Conservative Party's instinct for self-preservation. I don't mean by this that they'll pull back from the brink - they have an unrivalled history of stupidity, after all - but that they are sufficiently ruthless and unprincipled enough to break every rule and norm in pursuit of power. That, after all, is why they regularly deploy the trope of ruin against even the most innocuous of Labour oppositions, hence David Cameron's "chaos with Ed Miliband" routine. They are now in the process of defenestrating the Prime Minister, despite this being contrary to their own house rules, and are likely to embrace a no-deal policy that only a small minority of its MPs really believe in. Theresa May's residual loyalty means she is already trying to do her bit by painting Labour as the remain party, presumably in the expectation of an imminent general election fought along Brexit lines. If Nigel Farage gets a peerage in her resignation honours list, you'll know the fix is in.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Deja Vu

The league season has ended with Arsenal in fifth, which is an improvement on the previous season's sixth. Reinforcing the sense of near deja vu, the goals for and against would have been identical had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang completed a hat-trick against Burnley on Sunday and so monopolised the Golden Boot. In the event we scored a total of 73 and conceded 51, compared to last season's 74 and 51. The goodish news is that we ended with 7 more points, 70 versus 63, though there are obviously regrets that we couldn't garner a few more during the poor run we experienced in April. An additional 3 points would have been enough to put us in third and finish above both Chelsea and Spurs. A full reckoning on Unai Emery's first season will obviously have to await the Europa League final in Baku on the 29th of this month. Win silverware, and thereby qualify for next season's Champions League, and it will be judged a success. Lose and it will be judged a failure. In reality, both attitudes would be extreme.

I think this has been a classic transitional season and that Arsenal are some way short of being a team that can challenge in both the domestic league and in Europe. That we have got to a final in the latter reflects a general decline in continental standards, which the eulogising of Ajax's youngsters and Barcelona's ageing genius cannot hide. Napoli and Valencia were actually disappointing in the flesh, and it's clear that the leading clubs of recent decades, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, aren't as good as they were a few years ago. That the two European finals are being contested by four English teams has more to do with the relative dominance of the English Premier League than plucky comebacks and bulldog spirit, and that dominance in turn reflects the steady impact of money. My purpose here is not to make a disguised dig at Man City for Abu Dhabi's largesse, or to suggest that the Premier League summit is simply out of bounds, but to emphasise that Arsenal's ambitions are tied to spending.

Emery has been described as a "Europa League specialist", but that is just meaningless journalistic filler. Knockout competitions and two-legged ties are hardly esoteric and the managerial skills required to negotiate them are no different to those required to win a league match. While most cups are won by the top teams, luck plays a large part, along with momentum and self-belief. Arsenal have displayed both of the latter at times, notably in wins over Spurs, Chelsea and Man Utd, and a creditable home draw against Liverpool, but they've also had a degree of good fortune. On balance, I think we stand a good chance of beating Chelsea in Baku but much will depend on individual performances on the day. Aaron Ramsey's injury and the likelihood that Eden Hazard will want to leave on a high might favour Chelsea, but the current form of Lacazette and Aubameyang may prove crucial. Let's just hope Olivier Giroud doesn't pull an outrageous goal out of nowhere in the dying minutes.

Though memory suggests that Arsenal rode their luck in the league early on and then faded badly in the home straight, the stats tell a story of consistency in points won. Divided into three (12, 13 and 13 games), we got 24, 23 and 23 points. The goals for and against tally was 26/15, 23/20 and 24/16 (that middle period was marked by away defeats to Liverpool and Man City that added 8 goals in the debit column). Though we outscored everybody bar the top two, our goals conceded total was decidedly mid-table. Clearly we need to tighten-up in defence, and that means buying. Koscielny and Monreal can no longer be considered first-choice players given their ages, while Holding and Mavropanos remain future prospects. Sokratis has been a good acquisition but there are doubts over Mustafi. Kolasinac isn't a full-back and Lichtsteiner was a mistake. Even if we assume that Bellerin returns in good form and Mailtland-Niles continues as a makeshift full-back, it looks like Arsenal need to buy 2 or 3 decent defenders to plug the gaps.

The midfield remains confused. Torreira and Guendouzi have been positive acquisitions, but Xhaka and Ozil have both continued to frustrate. Indeed both look to have coasted on occasion as they assumed the new boys would do the running. Mkhitaryan and Elneny will probably move on - neither feels right -  and Iwobi may only have one more season to prove his worth. The chief problem with the midfield was a lack of defensive cover, but this season has also seen a dearth of goals and assists, with the front two often having to forage for themselves. This is the area where Emery's judgement will be most tested, because it isn't just about purchasing creative upgrades but figuring out a specific system of play that can provide an adequate balance between defence and attack. Up front we're looking good, but that probably means we can expect richer clubs to come calling. I think it would be a mistake to sell either Lacazette or Aubameyang, though you could see in the away victory against Valencia how a late George Graham era team could be carved out of the current squad, with a lone Aubameyang filling the Ian Wright role.

In reality we may be forced to sell if we want to improve the defence and bring in some more creativity in the middle of the park. Though I've long been a fan of Ozil's deceptive skills, I think he would be the logical player to offload now, though whether that is possible given his handsome contract and the lack of obvious suitors is another matter. With the likes of Mustafi, Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan unlikely to command significant fees, and with the contracts of Ramsey and Welbeck having been negligently run down, Arsenal are in a difficult situation financially. Stan Kroenke shows no appetite to invest and without Champions League revenues the club will be at a disadvantage to Chelsea and Spurs over the next few seasons, despite their respective transfer ban and stadium debt pile. Perhaps the "George Graham Mk 2" thinking is that Emery can promote some of the younger talent from the academy (who came a credible 2nd in the Under-23 league) and reintegrate on-loan players such as Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson.

Overall it's been a curate's egg of a season: some very good football in key matches, both in the EPL and Europa League, and some desultory performances in the bread-and-butter games, particularly away from home. It's a squad in which the whole is currently less than the sum of its parts, and we are no clearer about what "Emery-ball" might look like. The club's ambitions appear pragmatic, though I don't seriously imagine they're looking for the modern-day equivalent of David Hillier. An English Atletico Madrid is probably closer to the ideal: energetic, hard-to-beat, able to nick a goal. That suggests some radical squad surgery over the summer, and that in turn suggests heavy investment. While it isn't a case of Baku or bust, the difference in participation and commercial revenues between the two European competitions means that the length of this transitional period will certainly be influenced by which one we end up in next season.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Social Mobility or Barbarism

The Social Mobility Commission's State of the Nation report has a gloomy headline: Class privilege remains entrenched as social mobility stagnates. That an arm of the state should be making such a claim might appear bracingly honest, but it is less surprising when you consider that the prescriptions are the usual neoliberal ones of investment in education for the underprivileged and providing a floor to wages. In other words, this is actually addressing poverty (in the usual insubstantial way) rather than social mobility. There is little in the report about how to better facilitate downward mobility, which is the logical corollary of any attempts to encourage upward movement, a point that even The Daily Telegraph found itself noting (in ironic contrast, The Guardian worried about the demise of the middle class). Given that this would require the commission to address sensitive subjects like private education and inheritance, you can understand why the government will be happy enough with a report that says we must do more for the poor.

Social mobility has historically been more about the expansion of opportunities through growth than a two-way movement of talent. The heyday of upward mobility, between 1945 and 1975, was a period marked by rapid, year-on-year economic growth, a massive expansion of the public sector and professions (both of which provided an escalator for the talented working class to join the middle class), and technological change away from blue-collar to white-collar jobs that provided a society-wide "rising tide". There were similar if shorter "bursts" of upward mobility in the Edwardian era and the 1920s, which led to the assumption that social progress, in the sense of class mobility, was an inevitable feature of modernity outside of wartime and depressions, though it's worth noting that systemic shocks could themselves be spurs to mobility - e.g. the broadening of experience in World War Two helped trigger the social churn of the 1950s.

Downward mobility is far more unusual than the trope of distressed gentlefolk in literature would have us believe, and the return of "patrimonial capitalism" since the 1980s has made it even rarer. That high levels of inequality nationally correlate with low levels of social mobility - the so-called Great Gatsby Curve - has been recognised for some years, but less attention has been paid to the absence of growth as the key determinant. Indeed, it's plausible to argue that the correlation of inequality and immobility simply indicates that both are symptoms of restricted growth, with Thomas Piketty's now-famous r > g formula explaining the increasing concentration of wealth and the relative dearth of new employment opportunities (sectors like IT don't employ a lot of people) explaining the greater rigidity in intergenerational roles (if there aren't new jobs in new sectors open to you then you're more likely to follow a parent's career path).

Upward social mobility during les trente glorieuses often reflected the combination of increased wages and revised occupational status more than an improvement relative to society as a whole. For example, the pre-2008 belief that "we're all middle-class now" was simply a reflection of new consumption preferences and cultural affinities, and a belated recognition of the blue-to-white-collar transition, rather than a genuine change in socio-economic standing (John Prescott, to whom the phrase is often wrongly attributed - it was actually Tony Blair - will always be looked down upon by the upper middle class regardless of how many Jags he owns). Much of what is popularly understood to be upward mobility is simply a change in perspective brought about by affluence and deindustrialisation. Between 1950 and 1980 a coal-miner would have seen a huge improvement in his standard of living. That his daughter might have gone to university and become a teacher in that time was remarkable, but it wasn't the whole story.

It is also worth bearing in mind that geographical mobility has a strong correlation with social mobility. In other words, "getting on" often means moving away. Statistical measures of social mobility look at occupational status and income, so geography should be irrelevant, but the popular perception of mobility associates geographical displacement with class deracination. In the postwar heyday, that might have meant moving to another part of town or a "new estate" (consider how often this trope appears in the literature of the time, e.g. A Kind of Loving, and how it persisted into the 70s with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads), whereas starting in the 1980s it usually meant moving to another part of the country. That would increasingly be London, which began to be seen as parasitical on the rest of the UK, an attitude that has helped colour contemporary feelings about metropolitan values and the political class.

The problem with the up escalator of the metropolis is that the traditional markers of upward mobility, most obviously getting on the property ladder, are often least available there. You may be able to expand your cultural horizons in London, but you may not be able to achieve economic security. This has led to a greater class consciousness, in the sense of an identification among young graduates as "working class", which in turn reinforces the popular perception of reduced social mobility. That perception isn't wrong, but there is a tendency to ascribe stagnant mobility to dysfunctional factors like housing, rather than the broader nature of the economy, which is ultimately no more helpful than focusing on early-years education or the living wage. The bottom line is that upward social mobility has historically come about through strong economic growth. In an era of secular stagnation, social mobility will inevitably decline no matter how much we tinker with skills and markets.

This then raises an important question in light of the recent eXtinction Rebellion protests: is social mobility even possible in a zero-growth world? If not, then those, like the Green Party, who advocate such an approach in order to stop environmental degradation need to explain how they would prevent society ossifying. Some alternative mechanism would be required, and gesturing towards "meritocracy" or urging more public sector investment (which would be offset by reduced private sector growth) won't be enough. The truth is that a society in broad stasis, which was characteristic of all pre-industrial societies, is a society of rigid hierarchy. There may be controlled upward social mobility, such as the civil service exams of ancient China or the Catholic church of Medieval Europe, but these would be exceptions to the general rule of wealth and status preservation. In such a society, downward mobility would most often be the result of political failure, such as expropriation by the state or civil war.

So what to do? Short of weaning ourselves off the idea that social mobility is a good thing, and instead committing to the reactionary consolation of hierarchy, we might be best-advised to bias growth towards environmental restoration. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the technophilia and colonialism that underpin some "Green New Deal" thinking, the broad idea of decarbonising the economy, and doing so rapidly, has the virtue of providing a path to sustainable growth that would also expand new employment sectors and so provide the potential for greater social mobility, particularly if it was allied with increased taxes on wealth and a structural attack on privilege. I appreciate that improving the chances of "getting on" might appear a trivial concern compared to saving the planet, but incentives matter. We can have a green economy either through social progress or social regression: the choice is ours.