Aspiration nation? Wake up Cameron! The world has changed.

Aspiration nation?  Wake up Cameron, the world has changed.

So David Cameron wants to build an ‘aspiration nation’ ( Ofcourse this belies an obvious contradiction in his espoused commitment to bring about “…a country where it’s not who you know or where you’re from but who you are and where you’re determined to go” and the highly elitist nature of the four man cabal (known in Westminster as the ‘quad’: Cameron himself, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander).  The commitment is in tension too with policies that are widely thought to restrict the opportunities for higher education, and cut public services and welfare relied upon by the poorest, not least its children. Figures repeatedly suggest that his austerity government is leading to greater inequality and child poverty.

Leave aside these glaring issues, however, there is something deeply troubling in the almost universal attraction of our political class to the idea that we should all, and most of all our children, be much more aspirational and ambitious.  On the face of it, this appeal to individual desires for betterment appear to be the political equivalent of ‘motherhood and apple pie’: who could be against it?  I have argued elsewhere though, that much greater care and scrutiny is needed about setting such collective objectives.  Why?

First, and foremost, simply encouraging everyone to strive more for social advantage while explicitly ignoring structural inequality, even if successful in its own terms, would simply lead to greater competition for the same opportunities.  The result would be that more people wanted what they haven’t got.  Put more simply: more people would be more unhappy with their lot in life.  This is hardly a desirable political outcome.

In effect this has already been the result in those societies have most aggressively pursued individualism and the political economy of competitiveness (Cammack 2006).  For example, figures show that the British, living in what is widely regarded as axiomatic of the neo-liberal competition state, are amongst the most unhappy people in Europe (  Not only that, our extreme desire to pass the micro-politics of competitiveness onto our children (witness angst over school admissions; rankings in Pisa test comparisons; school league tables; the highly politicised nature of education policy and the pressing down of a target culture to individual children – get hold of a child’s school report to see what I am talking about) could well be part of the reason our children are also among the most stressed and least happy in Europe (

Ofcourse this argument is open to the refutation that it ignores the structural impact of the collective competition of individuals.  That is: if everyone competes more effectively for places in the existing social hierarchy, opportunities will multiply as a result.  This (mainly economic) argument assumes that individual striving creates more economic growth in the aggregate.  This very claim is the essence of Thatcherite politics and the idea of ‘trickle down’: that increased inequality can be tolerated because of some of the exorbitant benefits accumulated by the very rich will flow down to the rest of us, eventually reaching the poor.

The problem with this though is that we have been at these strategies for 30 years now and inequality has continued to grow and this has permeated more and more into educational attainment too.  Those countries where competitiveness has been most aggressively pursued and pushed down to the individual level have witnessed the greatest increase in inequality and ‘hollowing out’ of their labour market.  As skills levels have risen and more people have moved into what used to be regarded as ‘middle class’ jobs, the quality, pay and status afforded to these jobs has been in decline. Insecurity has proliferated, and in particular at the bottom.  Mobility has fallen, or at least stagnated, as it has become more difficult to progress within our highly polarised labour market.

Greater inequality is associated (even causality is very difficult to prove) with higher levels of criminality, lower levels of human welfare, higher levels of stress and sickness, lower levels of social cohesion and trust (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010)  It is in and of itself a bad thing, and the supposed benefits: better aggregate well being vis-à-vis other countries are at best a mirage on the horizon.

What is more, as the logic of competitiveness, which underpins the commitment to greater aspiration, has become more deeply embedded in our own society we increasingly recognise the problems it creates but frequently can’t see their cause.  Witness the bankers who are so obsessed with achieving exorbitant personal rewards that they were willing to break our entire national economy. Bankers are easy pickings though.  Witness too the hospitals so driven to compete on centrally set targets (set to encourage them to compete) that patient care is compromised or look around your workplace and take note of the divisive effect of competition for bonuses, promotion or the avoidance of redundancy!

The present economic crisis bears witness to the collapsing rationale for a logic of competitiveness in economic terms. It is held up as the solution to Europe’s problems (take a look at the Europe2020 strategy but it can’t perform this role.  We are told by our political leaders that the only way we can defend our standard of living from the spectre of Chinese and Indian competition is to compete.  Moving from manufacturing to services was put forward as the answer, for a while, but it turns out that the Indians and Chinese are just as good at that as us (is that surprising?).  The way out of the crisis suggested by our politicians is to engage in ever more competition between nations, and within them: between people. But competitiveness and aspiration can’t provide the way out of the current crisis for Europe because more competitiveness with China and India means devastating the standard of living and institutions (democracy, welfare, free medical care, health and safety/environmental regulation) that are apparently the justification for pursuing competitiveness in the first place!

This is the politics of desperation.  It is much closer to Hades than Nirvana.  An image of a row of national running machines comes to mind; with the population of each running ever harder to keep up with the rest.  Rather than us all just running faster, shouldn’t we be asking each other what the point of running was in the first place?  This is not a strategy likely to lead to ‘the good life’, whatever that may be.  We need to stop and ask what that good life would look like, and how we might work together to achieve it.

Think of the major challenges facing mankind: containing climate change; helping manage the increase in living standards in east Asia, Latin America and Africa, while protecting existing standards of living and containing the environmental and resource depletion challenges this presents; dealing with disease epidemics in developing countries and entrenched killers in the developed (cancer, heart disease and limiting conditions such as dementia) as well as unpredictable, resilient and emergent disease epidemics (MRSA, Avian Flu).  That is not to mention continuing ‘twentieth century’ problems of democratisation; ethnic, religious and nationalist claims for statehood; absolute poverty and famine.  What links all these problems is that they can’t be dealt with through competition but must instead be broached through cooperation, collective endeavour and a sense of shared purpose.

In this context, our politicians need to ‘wake up, smell the coffee’ and deal with 21st century problems with 21st century solutions.  The problems of our times require us to work collaboratively as never before.  This is true at the micro-level (and ironically what Cameron himself rhetorically appeals to in his (slowly evaporating) support for the ‘Big Society’) just as it is internationally.  If aspiration is to play a part in this, it need to be radically reformatted to refer to an individual’s desire to work with others for collective gain; to value equality rather than winning in a race for unequal outcomes.

For the research underpinning this blog post see:

Nunn, A. (2013). Fostering Social Mobility as a Contribution to Social Cohesion. Strasbourg, Council of Europe.

Nunn, A. (2012). “The Political Economy of Competitiveness and Social Mobility.” British Politics.

Nunn, A. (2008). “Restructuring the English Working Class for Global Competitiveness.” Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness 9.

Nunn, A. (2008). Factors influencing the inter- and intra-class mobility of Jobcentre Plus customers : a case study approach. London, Central Social Research Services.

Other References:

Cammack, P. (2006). “The Politics of Global Competitiveness.” Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness 1.

Wilkinson, R. G. and K. Pickett (2010). The spirit level: why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane.