The lies of meritocratic Britain

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From the Spectator 24 May 2016

In England after the Norman Conquest the worst insults you could throw were class insults. So long has feudal prejudice survived that we unconsciously echo the Anglo-Norman aristocracy when we use ‘villainous’ (from villien) and ‘churlish’ (from ‘churl’).

The churl of the 1300s might have reflected that, however miserable his life, it was not his fault that he had been born into servitude. His suffering was the result of an unjust society not a real reflection of his worth. No one shouts ‘churl’ or ‘rustic’ or ‘villien’ today.  We live in a meritocratic country and feudalism is long gone except for a few gaudy spectacles around the monarch. So they shout ‘loser’ instead.

Everyone had a chance, today’s elite implies. Everyone was behind the same starting line in the race for the top. You fought and you lost. You’ve no one to blame but yourself.  From ‘Tory’ to ‘suffragette’, history is full of insults that have been appropriated by their targets. But no insult has had such a perverted appropriation as ‘meritocracy’.

Its originator, Michael Young did not mean it as a compliment when he coined the word in 1958. His satire The Rise of the Meritocracy may not match Orwell and Huxley but he realised his dystopic vision well enough.  Young’s future was a world where the people at the top did not believe they were there because of birth or good luck, but because they were George Osborne’s strivers. All sense of noblesse oblige would vanish in the new and insufferable smugocracy, Young warned. Those beneath the elite would feel that they were not held down because of class or lack of opportunity, but because they had failed. They would not be the victims of an unfair world, but of their own weakness and stupidity.

You could wear the badge of ‘peasant’ or ‘prole’ with pride. Once you might have claimed to be a working-class hero.  But there is nothing heroic about being a loser.

The fate of Young’s meritocracy is instructive. Meant as a warning, our rulers took it as a manifesto. Businessmen and financiers announced that they were meritocrats and deserved every bonus they awarded themselves. Tony Blair and David Cameron announced that they wanted Britain to be more meritocratic. As for the poor, as Young reflected just before his death in 2002

They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.  It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.

That we are not a meritocracy ought to be obvious. A true meritocracy would resemble a type of communism. To ensure no child had an unfair advantage and only innate talent flourished, the state would ban parental bequests, and remove all children from their parents to communal hostels, as in Plato’s Republic.

Our society uses the language of equality to hide class advantage, as James Bloodworth illustrates in The Myth of the Meritocracy: Why Working-Class Kids Still Get Working-Class Jobs. It is a smashing little book, confidently written, well-researched and a grim pleasure to read. Bloodworth works in the media as I do. Whatever discontents our trade brings, it helps you see through the lies Britain tells itself. What was once a career for bright 18-year-olds with good A-Levels, now requires you to take out a loan for a BA, pay, without a student loan, for a post-graduate qualification, which in most instances will be useless, work for free as an intern, and then, unless you are very lucky, work for very little for years thereafter. You cannot do it without rich parents. Nor, unless you are very lucky will you thrive in the law, military, medicine, and many other professions, which carry on as if the 20th century never happened. (Who your parents were, interestingly, matters far less in science, accountancy, engineering, and technology; presumably because, unlike judges and generals, scientists can tell the difference between being good at your job and good company at a dinner party.)

New Labour’s emphasis on education was meant to offer a way out of the class system. But the universities have merely replicated existing divisions. Only 17 per cent of students at Russell Group universities are from the lower classes, while 31 per cent are the children of the wealthy.  Children from poorer families go to the poorer universities, which in a cruel deceit, burden them with the same debts as Oxford and Cambridge. The privileges and burdens of the parent become the privileges and burdens of the child. The old class system is thriving, all that has changed is its ability to hide itself behind the language of egalitarianism.

Bloodworth is from the left and his main purpose in writing this book is to try to stop left-wingers talking about diversity, or rather to accept there can be no diversity, which does not include class. He has to be careful because he does not mean that we should ignore sexism or racism, simply that talk of white male privilege sounds sick to a young man stacking shelves in Leeds, and can only persuade him to vote Ukip, as it is persuading millions across Europe to vote for the populist right A left-wing politics, which does not look at class privilege, is hollow. But that is what so much of left-wing politics is, and we are meant to celebrate a society where the number of  middle-class women going to university has tripled since the 1980s, and avert our eyes from the fact that the number of working-class women in college has not shifted at all.

Bloodworth is a talented and independent-minded left-wing writer. He ends his book by saying that we cannot have a meritocratic society without becoming a more equal society. We have stopped children coming into school hungry and living in cold, cramped and damp slums. Indeed we should want to stop it regardless of whether those children could grow up to be captains of industry or Nobel prize winners, because poverty is wrong in itself.

But as with so many books by lesser writers Bloodworth offers few recommendations on how to move forward. Without knowing it, he illustrates the predicament of the left of our day: it can offer 1001 compelling reasons why society should change but hardly any ideas on how it can change.

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