Today David Cameron is indulging in some hardline populist rhetoric on immigration. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Conservatives need someone to blame for the failure of Thatcherism to deliver higher levels of well being for our society over the past 30 years. What Thatcherite neo-liberal economics claimed it would do is make everyone better off. This would work by making some people very wealthy. That wealth would then ‘trickle-down’ to the rest of society. What in fact it did was to suck money away from the overwhelming majority of the population and create a small group of extremely wealthy individuals. These individuals then moved their new-found wealth overseas, making almost everyone poorer.

The countries that didn’t experiment with Thatcherite economics are the ones that have maintained very quality of life, and wealthy societies. Countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark all come very high in quality of life rankings. This is because they didn’t hand vast sums to small numbers of people. Instead they shared their national wealth.

But David Cameron continues to believe in the Thatcherite dream. One of his ministers, Greg Barker, was caught saying that the government was making cuts even Thatcher wouldn’t have dreamed of. So he has to explain why wealth isn’t ‘trickling down’. A convenient way to do this is to blame immigrants.

The 2005 Conservative Campaign, masterminded by David Cameron featured posters welcomed by the BNP.
David Willetts was following a similar approach when blaming feminism for preventing social mobility. His argument, as I understand it, is that the entry of women into the workforce meant that it was more difficult for men from lower class backgrounds to get better jobs. This is obviously pretty offensive to women, it’s pretty offensive to those who believe in advances on merit and it’s pretty offensive coming from a minister in a government that seems hell-bent on ending social mobility.

The first problem many will have had with Willetts’ statement is that he seems to think that social mobility amongst women is less important than among men. I can’t even begin to understand this.

Then, there’s the question of how class-determinist it is. He clearly believes that anyone middle-class is better than anyone working class. Therefore middle class women will obviously trump upwardly mobile working class men. He fails to understand that class is mostly accident of birth, not an inherited level of ability. To assume that it is the case that middle -class women will be better than working class men lays clear for everyone to see his patrician belief that the children of the rich are simply better than the children of the poor.

But the really offensive thing about Willetts’ comments is that he blames a lack of social mobility amongst working class men on the entry of women into the workplace. It’s offensive because the thing that really stops working class people being socially mobile is the changes introduced by Thatcher in opportunities available to working class people. That offence is compounded by the intention of the current government to make “cuts Thatcher wouldn’t have dreamed of” that will make social mobility even more difficult.

My parents were both the first in their families to go to University. They grew up in the golden era for social mobility: the 1960s. Both enjoyed substantially higher living standards than their parents or grandparents. But the decisions by governments from Thatcher on to make the rich richer have made the journey enjoyed by my parents very exceptional. Now it’s rare for someone from a working class background to become a doctor, as my mother did. And that’s because Conservative policies have made it almost impossible.

While the Blair government talked the talk on social mobility, it was pretty hopeless at achieving anything. As Richard Wilkinson points out the Brown government was substantially better, but was just too short to undo the damage of 28 years of entrenched privilege promoted by Thatcher and Blair.

This damage is being greatly exacerbated by the ideological cuts imposed by the current government. Using deficit reduction as an excuse the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is cutting services to the poorest, increasing inequality and making social mobility more difficult.

By promoting an unequal society where wages for most workers stay static while the rich become much richer, social mobility becomes much more difficult. And a much more unequal society is the implicit aim of the current government, of which Willetts is a part. If he cared about social mobility he’d encourage the government to chase down tax avoiders, and reduce their savage cuts to services for the most vulnerable.

So it should be no surprise that Cameron chooses to use the same rhetoric about immigration. It’s amazing that the Conservatives are always quick to blame less powerful groups for the failure to deliver a better society. The notion that immigrants are to blame for static living standards is based on the same false premise that underpins Willetts’ assertions about feminism diminishing social mobility. For Conservatives, it’s never the case that there’s not enough money for mansions, yachts, or high performance cars, it’s that there’s not enough money for decent pay. The UK is plenty rich enough to provide high quality public services for its citizens, to allow social mobility for the most able and to accommodate immigrants. But only if we don’t have to pay for a tiny number of people to be so rich they can afford several houses, a yacht and an array of sports cars.

The problem for Conservatives like Willetts and Cameron is that they’re in politics to support exactly those fabulously rich people. So Cameron and Willetts are forced to blame lack of jobs, lack of social mobility and our failure to deal with poverty on women, immigrants, or whichever other minority comes to mind. It’s reprehensible, and was rightly mocked. It adds to the compendium of evidence that this government is really only interested in supporting a plutocratic elite at the expense of the rest of the country.