Although in the early twentieth century, social mobility in Britain was a seemingly dubious and slow process, as time went on, more drastic change put it into play.
In previous centuries, attempts of social mobility in Britain seemed to move backwards for some classes, such as the working and middle classes, these were times when it looked like a doubtful notion. As maintained by David Cannadine in his analysis of Class In Britain, through attempts of mobility in British society during those times, “the stable, oligarchic world of early Georgian politics gave little opportunity for the middle class to improve its position in what remained a pre-eminently partisan society”. (Cannadine, 2000)
The struggle with class kept society separate and it seemed each class had their own role to play. According to Cannadine, society was seen in Karl Marx‘s view, which was three categories, “landowners, who drew their unearned income from their estates as rents; bourgeois capitalists, who obtained their earned income from their businesses in the form of profits; and proletarian workers, who made their money by selling their labour to their employers in exchange for weekly wages.” (sited in Cannadine, 2000. Pg.4). Through these set roles for society it seemed social mobility was an unwelcome concept. Marx‘s solution was to “classify individuals in collective groupings, according to their different relation to the means of production.” (sited in Cannadine, 2000. Pg.4) With that said, it is not to say that social mobility would only be defined by moving from lower to higher pay, it was the progression of many aspects of society as a whole that defined it rather than the individuals and their own progression. One aspect of the growth of society as a whole that saw social mobility was the Industrial Revolution, Cannadine maintained that as it gathered momentum from the 1770’s and 1780’s, Britain’s social and political structure was more drastically and more permanently transformed. (Cannadine, 2000)
This was a time when the middle class was becoming more vigorous, numerous and ambitious. Additionally, Cannadine also pointed out that this progression began, “changing Britain into the first industrial nation and the workshop of the world,” (Cannadine, 2000) From there on, although there was still a lot of struggle pertaining to class along the way, social and class mobility in Britain was more present.
However, the social history of Britain is not that basic, as pointed out by theorist Arthur Marwick, there is more than one factor that defines the study of British society, there are factors such as family, population, housing, social class and so on. Thus, “social history can be written as a relatively neutral account of the main changes and developments in these areas”. (Marwick, 2003) It is not just moving from low to higher pay or more skilled work. Hence, class and social mobility can be measured through the analysis of the changes and progression made in other aspects of the growth society.
All the same, after the Second World War from 1945, conditions were, as to be expected, at a low in Britain. There were a lot of aspects of British life that were affected, exports from Britain had fallen to one third of pre-war level, (Marwick, 2003) and Britain was surviving post war living conditions. Britain was in debt, unemployment was at a high and the nation was slowly being re-built. Conversely, according to Alexandra Dienst’s theories, there were some positive aspects to the development and mobility of Post-War Britain. Dienst pointed out that the “domestic economy was recovering as agricultural production grew by 160 per cent between 1945 and 1957, its share of world exports was back at pre-war levels of 25 per cent, industrial products and GDP grew, and inflation and unemployment were low.” (Dienst, 2005) In essence the state in which the war left Britain meant there was room for progression for society. For some, the expansion of these sectors had been linked to social mobility and access to a middle class lifestyle. A higher percentage of people with degree-level qualifications, compared with those workers with no qualifications, for example, are employed in the service sector in the UK, and almost a third of these graduates work in the financial and business services sector, where rates of pay are high (Erdem and Glyn 2001). But at the bottom end, prospectors for mobility and security are minimal. (cited in McDowell Pg.32)
Moreover, as Cannadine asserted, there was a “class-based orthodoxy which held sway in Britain and elsewhere from the Second World War until the mid 1970’s.” (Cannadine, 2000)
However as Marwick suggested, there are elements that make up class, to name a few, ‘class is shaped by history’; it originates with the Industrial Revolution, which steadily replaced an older society of estates and orders by one made up of the more fluid and imprecise social classes’.(Marwick, 2003) Through Industrial Revolution progression was inevitable, be that as it may, according to Marwick, “Industrialization proceeded at different speeds in different parts of the country.” (Marwick, 2003) Resulting in social mobility moving at different speeds depending on where one happened to live in the country. Consequential to an inevitable separation of class due to circumstances still, this entire struggle showed social mobility in Britain.
Furthermore, it was said that “political events, traditions, national characteristics, and more recent upheavals of war all affected the forms of class as they were after 1945”. (Marwick, 2003) In the early 1970’s, before the reign of Margaret Thatcher, Sir Edward Heath was the leader of the Conservative party. However, Heath’s government had become increasingly criticized after the collapse of a brief economic ‘boom’. As maintained by Eric, J. Evans (2004) “this was followed by the imposition of wage controls, industrial unrest and, in response to the latter, the imposition of a power-saving three-day week.” (Evans, 2004) Such aspects can be barriers to social mobility, more so at a time of progression.
Following Heath’s time in office was Margaret Thatcher, who as written by Evans was an ‘extraordinary phenomenon‘. He acknowledged that “She is the only woman Prime Minister in British history. She was Prime Minister from May 1979 to November 1990, and eleven and half years was a comfortably longer stint than anyone else achieved in the twentieth century”. (Evans, 2004) In this essay I will analyse how she and her legacy changed and affected social mobility in Britain, I will look at different aspects of British society since her time in power and explore how they have contributed to social mobility in Britain.
ECONOMIC POLICY AND THE WORKFORCE
Before the Thatcher government, employment and the economy were already changing. Manufacturing was starting to decline in the 1970’s with companies choosing to move abroad where production costs and unions were not much of an issue.
In their analysis of unemployment before, during and after Thatcher’s time in power, Suborto Roy and John Clarke (2006) pointed out that “the Thatcher government brought to end innumerable props to the manufacturing sector’s demand for labour. Thus companies laid off man-power in the thousands; essentially what was going on was a coming-to-terms with the market forces facing manufacturing. Hence much of the rise of unemployment was the response to these forces, delayed by a decade or so of government intervention.” (Roy and Clarke, 2006. Pg.53) With the new policies that were put in place, such as unemployment benefits, people that were made redundant felt less inclined to find jobs. Furthermore, it was argued that unions would create barriers to the return of such workers by preventing the reduction in wage their competition would create. (Roy and Clarke, 2006. Pg.54) Thatcher saw unions and civil servants as the main cause for economic issues in the UK. She could be said to have produced one of the most drastic changes in the economy in the UK. Through her drive and determination she was determined to reduce their power and increase the productivity of the workforce. Due to this vision we have the society we live in today.
During the 1980’s a lot of effort was made by the government to tackle unemployment. However according to Roy and Clarke, “it seemed to many that all the efforts of the 1980’s had been in vain, a mirage even; the economy was back to high unemployment (no cure there apparently) and inflation was on the rise again.” (Roy and Clarke, 2006. Pg. 55)
According to Evans’ analysis of the UK’s economy and employment at this time, the productivity of those who remained in work during this period increased sharply. This was a key element in the government’s drive towards greater international competitiveness. Inflation also began to come down; by spring of 1982, it was back in single figures. However, this had little to do with monetarism, at least directly. The value of the pound sterling in international markets had appreciated so much in a suddenly oil rich nation that manufacturers were finding it ever more difficult to sell abroad. The price of imports, which those British who could afford them were still avid to consume, was commensurately low, while the huge rise in unemployment was reducing workers’ bargaining power and reducing the rate of wage rises. (Evans, 2006. Pg.21)
Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, actually raised taxes, shifts from direct to indirect taxation. The top rate of income tax was, therefore, reduced from 83 per cent to 60 per cent to give wealth creators what was deemed the necessary incentive to chase markets and engender elusive economic growth: at the same time, the standard rate went down from 33per cent to 30 per cent. (Evans 2004. Pg.19-20)
Fortunately, the John Major government was finally seeing a change in the economy. Roy and Clarke maintained that the years since 1992 had been something of a golden era, “inflation came down and stayed down, while unemployment steadily fell”. (Roy and Clarke, 2006. Pg.56)
John Major, it was said, thought “late twentieth-century Britain to be a class-bound and class-obsessed nation.” (Cannadine, 2000. Pg.1) This was part of the reason why he sought to achieve a government at ease with itself.
In the labour force as a whole since 1977 there has been an astonishing decline in proportion of the population with no education qualification and credentials. In 1979, for example, 47 per cent of adult men and 61 per cent of adult women were without any qualification; by 1999 the proportions had declined to 15 per cent and 21 per cent respectively (Erdem and Glyn 2001). In addition, the expansion of university places by 154 per cent since 1977 has increased participation rates among 18-years-olds to over a third of the age cohort. However, the benefits of this increase have accrued, mainly to middle class students, further exacerbating the barriers excluding working class young people from high-status service occupations, where the possession of a degree is a prerequisite for entry. The prospects of upward career mobility, through ‘working one’s way up’, have declined in post-war Britain, a trend that was especially noticeable from 1990 onwards. Although Britain is now a more middle class society, the prospects of sons of working class fathers moving into the middle class have actually declined in recent decades (Aldridge 2001; Walker 2001; Webb 1996). (cited in McDowell 2003. Pg. 34) Even though the aim of the Education Act 1944 was to provide equal education for children of all backgrounds by providing free secondary education to pupils, there were still some struggles with class.
However as the UK government became less obsessed with focussing on Marxist views of separating society, everyone was awarded opportunity to improve, and thereafter social mobility became faster growing with time.
Although Thatcher cannot take full responsibility for the recession and trend towards services rather than manufacturing, her policies and beliefs on areas such as privatisation, unions and taxation have had a huge impact on the ability of poorer households to remove themselves from poverty. The increase in VAT less social housing and inflation and closure of manufacturing all created an impossible boundary to class mobility. The result of which saw education as the only exit for poorer families, if they could secure funding for it.
Through a lesser emphasis on separating society based on class, which many theorists believed to be far more complex than Marx appreciated, Britain had evolved and developed.
Through the analysis of Thatcher’s time in power, with careful consideration into the different aspects of modern society that her government was responsible for changing or shaping in some ways, the impact of her government on Britain is distinguished. The changes she was able to achieve taking on power at a time when Britain’s government was struggling meant a New Britain was able to emerge. Thus social mobility in the UK was notable. With new economic policies, evolving ways of viewing different classes, new policies pertaining to employment there was drastic movement in the way that the government was run during and after Thatcher’s time in power. As said by Cannadine “all these economic changes turn out, on closer inspection to have been extremely complex, varied and gradual developments.” (Cannadine, 2000) Thus it can be said that Thatcher and the legacy left by her government saw social mobility moving faster than it had been when past parties had been in power.
Cannadine, D., 2000. Class In Britain. London: Penguin Books
Dienst, A., 2005. To What Extent Did Thatcher and Thatcherism Change Britain[e-boo] essay. Available at:
Evans, E. J., 2004. Thatcher and Thatcherism 2nd ed. New York: Routledge
Friedman, L. D., 2006. Fires Were Started: British Cinema 2nd ed. London: Wallflower Press
Living Heritage. The Education Act 1944 [online] available at: