Snakes & Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth

Selina Todd

Chatto & Windus, £25

Review by Sean Bell

“Capitalism – which in its purest form is entrepreneurism even amongst the poorest of the poor – does work.” So evangelised Virgin mogul Richard Branson in his 1980s prime, neatly avoiding the obvious follow-up: for whom, exactly?

In Snakes & Ladders, Oxford history professor Selina Todd aims to explain why, “over the past 140 years, birth and wealth have exercised a far greater influence on a person’s social position than talent, effort or ambition” and finally disprove the myths which have been opportunistically peddled to the contrary.

A cynic – or for that matter, anyone who lived through the past two decades – might wonder what Todd has to tell us we don’t already know. Those who experienced the 2008 financial collapse and its aftermath need no lessons in downward mobility, while their parents have all but given up on the once-common hope that their children might have more than they did. The economic ravages of Covid-19 give every indication that the next generation will see this grim pattern repeated.

Nevertheless, the myth of social mobility and those who propagate it have always been stubbornly resistant to the evidence that refutes them. Though Britain never sanctified the dream of ascending the ladder of prosperity and aspiration in the same way as the United States – where, as John Steinbeck almost said, “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires” – it remains embedded in the thinking of our political establishment. Successive governments, Labour and Tory alike, have made use of this myth, dodging the question of whether conditions can be improved for all by instead promising they can be escaped by some, provided they apply the requisite hustle. The knock-on effects are obvious: when you’re trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s a lot harder to hold out a helping hand.

Apart from eroding social solidarity and a sense of the common good – which, for those selling the scam of meritocracy, was likely the point – this snake-oil never worked. As Todd reminds us, despite all the 1980s’ monetarist exhortations to “acquire wealth unfettered by state regulation”, upward mobility actually declined over the course of that decade. Given how much leftover Thatcherite ideology persists within our present government, this is worth keeping in mind.

Such realities justify Todd’s stated ambition, even if her conclusions are far from surprising and her methodology is mixed. By her own admission, while she marshals statistical data where relevant, the book relies more heavily upon the personal experiences of individuals. In many cases, these anecdotes provide a welcome sense of human colour and context to illustrate the social divisions Todd seeks to unravel. The historian and author Studs Terkel used a similar approach to great effect, but compared to Terkel’s classics of oral history, the personal reflections amassed by Todd often feel clipped and abrupt, like the soundbites of talking heads in a documentary.

That said, Todd has a lot of ground to cover. In examining both the myth and reality of social mobility, Todd’s scope of inquiry is large – scrutinising seven generations born between the 1880s and the 1990s – but unavoidably varied in detail. The late Victorian age – defined by battle between intractable defenders of inherited wealth and privilege and the socialists and reformers who felt otherwise – and the Millennials whose lives were shaped by recession are not ignored, but seem disappointingly condensed compared to the lengthy analysis given to “The Breakthrough Generation” of 1920-34 and the “Golden Generation” of 1935-55.

Todd is more consistent not only in her examination of class relations, but the detrimental impact racism, sexism and homophobia have had upon social mobility – though she noticeably elides any mention of transphobia, despite trans people in the UK experiencing higher than average unemployment and well below average incomes.

Early in the book, Todd notes that the definition of class she employs is considerably more Marxist than others in her field of study might be comfortable with. Yet the solutions she puts forward in her conclusion are distinctly moderate, and arguably fall some way short of the systemic change demanded by the problems she identifies. “The programme of change set out here may sound too ambitious,” she writes. It doesn’t.

None of Todd’s prescriptions are objectionable in and of themselves – her call for free, universal, non-selective education from cradle to grave is particularly pressing, and will be until it is achieved – but are often hampered by her focus upon the past, which may be an occupational hazard for a historian. She looks nostalgically to eras where an influx of working-class figures to certain professions delivered much-needed innovation, grassroots campaigns organised widely and effectively, and local authorities offered “bold visions for the future which challenged the edicts of national government”. By contrast, the vague and fuzzy wish-list Todd outlines offers no equivalent vision of her own.

Perhaps more damagingly, by the book’s end, Todd has still not escaped the myth of opportunity which has always accompanied the myth of social mobility. Todd yearns, as many of us might, for democratic reform, the resurgence of trade unionism, and a rediscovered sense of collective endeavour. And yet, while praising the architects of the welfare state for achieving a more equal society, she aspires to little more than an equality of opportunity – a goal familiar from the rhetoric of many politicians who helped spread the myth she ostensibly seeks to destroy.

Todd acknowledges that opportunity can only be expanded through greater social and economic equality – the kind of transformative material redistribution sought by the early socialists she obligingly pays tribute to, who understood that while opportunity may knock, equality delivers. However, Todd does curiously little to unpack how this might be brought about, delegating such hard work to her academic peers. This absence leaves the book feeling uneven and incomplete. Todd identifies many pressing problems; readers will need to look elsewhere for immediate solutions.