Lessons for Australia from English social ossification

Over the past 400 years England has changed a great deal. Reformation, Republican Interregnum, Revolution, slavery, lots of wars, massacres, colonialism and building and losing an empire are just some of the things which jump out from history.

More recently Margaret Thatcher sought to undo the Bevin Welfare State and privatised public bodies which nowadays rip off customers or pollute the environment. Meanwhile Tony Blair gave remaining State institutions bureaucratic managerialist makeovers which increased their costs and diminished their performance.

But despite all this there is one thing which never seems to change much – the English class system.

A recent PNAS (17/5) paper by Gregory Clark of the London School of Economics Economic History Department, The Inheritance of social status: England 1600 to 2022, demonstrates the reality.

The paper addresses the “widespread belief across the social sciences in the ability of social interventions and social institutions to significantly influence rates of social mobility.

“In England, 1600 to 2022, we see considerable change in social institutions across time. Half the population was illiterate in 1800, and not until 1880 was compulsory primary education introduced. Progressively after this, educational provision and other social supports for poorer families expanded greatly.

“The paper shows, however, that these interventions did not change in any measurable way the strong familial persistence of social status across generations” across the 400 years of accumulated data.

Clark used a large genealogical base which detailed family connections of 422,374 people with rarer surnames in England for births from 1600 to 2022.

He measured social status by six outcomes: occupational status, higher education status, literacy, dwelling, value, company directorships and “the index of multiple deprivation (IMD) for the residence location”.

Status correlations were calculated for all these outcomes for relatives up to fourth cousins. These correlations revealed four things.

First, status persisted strongly across even distant relatives. Indeed, even fourth cousins who share a common ancestor five generations earlier show statistically significant status correlations.

Second, the vast social changes since the Industrial Revolution, including population wide schooling, did not increase in any way underlying rates of social mobility.

The third feature confirms work undertaken in 1918 by Ronald Fisher. Fisher looked at a reliable social indicator – mating assortment or who marries who – and found that overwhelmingly like marries like in class terms.

Now Clark also looks at a fourth factor – genetics. Understandably he tiptoes around the issue but did find that “whatever social processes are producing the observed outcomes have a form of transmission which mimics that of additive genetic effects, in the presence of the important social institution of strong associative mating.” In other word, more confirmation that like marries like.

However, the database he uses also contains a large number of observations on wealth at death for men and women dying 1800 to 2022. For richer families, the transfer of wealth was also affected by social elements such as the number of children in a family, or by the gender of the child.

Looking at wealth inheritance, however, he finds that it is persistent over generations and that for England exactly the same surname and status persistence is unchanged from the seventeenth century until now.

An interesting question, given growing inequality in Australian and the emergence of ultra-wealthy and privileged classes – is what impact this will have on Australian social mobility.

One can only hope the situation changes in far less than 400 years although our persistent refusal to tax wealth makes it seem unlikely.

Perhaps we will finally end up with a variation on the Bunyip Aristocracy William Wentworth wanted to create by awarding titles similar to those of the House of Lords. Will an AC be enough or will there be something even more splendid?

But then, the new class of billionaires probably aspire less to the titles William Wentworth wanted to award and more to a simple self-perpetuating Bunyip Billionaire club with the profits which made it possible untouched by a rational and progressive taxation system.

Interventions may not have changed the English social structure much, but some targeted social and taxation ones can still work in Australia. That is, if we ever get a government with a genuine commitment to make a determined effort to resist business, billionaire and Murdoch media hysteria, opposition and disinformation.

Otherwise, some Australian researcher in 2423 might find that we followed the same path as the English.

The blog’s friend John Spitzer brought the PNAS paper to its attention.