When Michael Young, Labour Peer and co-author of the party’s celebrated 1945 General Election manifesto, coined the word ‘Meritocracy’ in 1958 it was intended as a warning. In his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young painted a portrait of a dystopian Britain in which children were divided up at an early age into a brainy elite and a cognitive lumpenproletariat. The separation was carried out along scientific lines – yet that did little to assuage the pain for those who found themselves languishing at the bottom of the pile.
The Rise of the Meritocracy pictured a society in which hereditary privilege had near enough been abolished. If you rose to the stratospheric heights of a good job and a fat salary it was because you possessed the raw ability to do so – and should therefore be allowed to enjoy the generous rewards on offer. Yet the situation was in many respects even more humiliating for those at the bottom than that which had existed previously. More than in even the most class-bound society, it was constantly drummed into them that you must know their station.
Michael Young’s lesson for the contemporary left might be that equality of opportunity is, on its own, not enough. Of course, the idea that Britain is on the cusp of becoming a meritocratic dystopia is far-fetched. The sheer scale of generational inequality that exists in Britain today is so vast that there are more pressing things to worry about than whether we are about to wake up to a society stratified along lines of talent and ability.
Yet the long-term aim of ‘equality of opportunity’, espoused by politicians right across the political spectrum, has a discernible impact on the sort of society we are creating in the present. The desired ends bring to life the means.
If we look at the dominant trend in politics today, it is towards a sort of enlightened elitism in which the top – boardrooms, political parties, media outlets – is not made more democratic, but more representative. Liberal politicians have largely given up on the idea of abolishing elites, and instead want to tune them up so they resemble, superficially at least, the society they rule over. Thus an imaginary future built around the unachievable goal of meritocracy risks becoming one in which misery in the present is simply divided up along proportional class and demographic lines.
This is in many respects a good and necessary thing. A boardroom which is half female, made up of 14 per cent ethnic minorities and with, let’s say, 20 per cent of members from working class backgrounds, would be far more representative of British society that one in which 90 per cent of the members were white, upper class and male. But if the members of that boardroom were still paid a hundred times as much as the people who cleaned their offices, would ‘equality’ really have been achieved? Would it be any more democratic than what had prevailed before?
Michael Young’s great lesson of the left was that equality of opportunity – culminating in the creation of a ‘meritocracy’ – is in itself not enough. However his critique of the meritocratic idea is also applicable to elite identity politics: an elite which is representative is still an elite, even if it is unarguably an improvement on what went before. The left used to want to abolish elites, or at the very least to reduce their distance from the people they ruled over. Today it can at times feel like representativeness is the ultimate – and extremely limited – goal of social democratic politics.
Perhaps most depressingly of all, through being unwilling to deal with entrenched economic inequalities, liberal politicians are helping to fuel the illiberal backlash we are seeing across the western democracies. In a grim irony, as we get better at making elites more representative, so the populist backlash directs its ire against increasingly visible minorities who are unfairly seen as climbing up on the backs of downtrodden whites.
Meritocracy is a lamentable goal for all the reasons spelt out by Michael Young. Progressive politics is at its best when it is reducing the gap between the top and the bottom, not trying to find a ‘progressive’ rational for entrenched inequality.