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Social Mobility 'Tsar': The Clue's in the Name

06/06/2013 12:00 BST | Updated 05/08/2013 10:12 BST
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We should have seen it coming. Even the most cursory student of Russian history will be able to tell you that though the Muscovite despots stood for many things, social mobility sure as hell wasn't one of them. Thus with perfunctory tragi-comedy the news cycle churned earlier this week to reveal that the so-called "social mobility tsar", telegenic entrepreneur James Caan, has been hiring and promoting his two twentysomething daughters within the paternal folds of his business empire. The "Manifesto on Unshakable Autocracy" it isn't. But the taint of nepotism is uncomfortably closer to tsardom than combatting class stratification.

Media myopia has reduced this episode to a banal "row" over Caan's apparent hypocrisy. It should instead be used as a starting point for a more concerted debate on the question of parental support for the young in an ossified jobs market. For what Caan's actions really reveal is that we shouldn't be castigating parents - as he himself has done - for giving their progeny a leg-up. We should be focussing on the powerful systems of vested interest, which prohibit the unconnected, non-privileged from entering certain spheres of the workforce in the first place. By this I mean the well-oiled network of schools and universities, tax heavens and corporations (see Caan's own private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw and its former connections to the Cayman Islands, for instance). These supranational, institutional blockades, which undergird safe passage from select schools and universities to the most influential and powerful industries, are the problem. Parental goodwill is small fry by comparison.

Whatever principles a parent may hold, you can almost guarantee that they will be outstripped by what they view as best for their children. Just ask Polly Toynbee the high priestess of the left-wing commentariat about her choice to educate her kids privately. (Incidentally, why always "high priestess"? It follows "tsar" and "guru/Svengali" as the most vacuous and hackneyed epithet we give public figures.)

We can accommodate any ideological dissonance, it seems, when our kids are involved. Yet this "row" eclipses the notion that to a certain extent personal connections and parental preference are inescapable. If we blame the parents we then overlook the societies that support inequitable systems. It's wholly counter-productive and shifts attention away from colossal apparatuses of power and wealth, to the individual foibles of the family unit. Social mobility is about more than supporting or not supporting your kids.

If anything, blaming the 'rents, is a useful deflection away from much wider societal failures. After all, what's more damaging to social mobility: the pushy, ambitious parents who have always existed, or the arbiters of our global crisis, that seems predicated on inequality? It's reminiscent of the discursive gag that prevented the Soviets from being able to publicly recognise that a new self-serving elite, the nomenklatura, dominated their workers' paradise. Or, more pressingly perhaps, the way the US political discourse consistently refuses to accept the total dissipation of the American Dream. These ideological constrictions fuel the problem, because they result in us not talking properly about inequality and the related collapse in social mobility.

And this is what Caan is himself guilty of. He's not a tsar. He's a member of the new, moneyed and international nomenklatura. He enjoys peddling his own image as a self-made man. Indeed, it's his self-professed motivation for becoming social mobility high priest/tsar/doge/khagan in the first place. What this formulation denies, however, is the fact that Caan would be hard-pressed to repeat his meteoric rise today. I'd suggest we question the self-preservation, not of his family, but of his sprawling assets. Could he be quite so well off and influential if we lived in a fairer society?

Wanting the best for your child is fine. After all, that's the sort of the aspiration behind a healthy, socially mobile society. But shovelling your untaxed wealth abroad, hob-knobbing with politicians and edging the poor out of your esteemed postcode, is not fine. There's a difference between giving your child a foothold and removing the ladder for everyone else.