What happened to meritocracy

And why does everybody want it anyway?

Before he was elected to be prime minister, Tony Blair looked into the future. “We are light years from being a true meritocracy”, he prophesied. But he may have been exaggerating, because two years later, just five months into office, he declared that, “The Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy.”

In case we hadn’t understood, he said something similar in 1999. “The old establishment is being replaced by a new, larger, more meritocratic middle class.”

In fact, social mobility has declined under his premiership. Quizzed about this on the Today programme on Thursday, he accepted that Labour has more to do to create a more egalitarian society, and said he found issues around the growing wealth gap “difficult”.

But he insisted there was no simple solution. “If you take a few rich or wealthy individuals who live in London and you go and clobber them with taxation, I’m afraid you’re not actually going to get money, they’ll just move elsewhere. I don’t think that’s what’s keeping back social mobility.”

“What does keep it back is the fact that as opposed to having, when I was growing up, a large working class and then a middle class, I think what you’ve got today is maybe … 10% at the bottom who find it really, really hard to break out of that, and I think it requires different policies for them.”

He didn’t say exactly what those policies were, but in the past the emphasis has been on education as the springboard from which the lower classes can vault into privilege – so long as the individuals in question have genuine merit.

His ministers have taken a similar line. Ruth Kelly, when she was in charge of schools, said: “I see my department as the department for life chances. We must create a society where ability flows to the top irrespective of an individual’s background.”

Many other Labour initiatives are founded on the idea that merit should be rewarded. The removal of hereditary peers from the Lords was justified on the grounds that birth should give way to merit (or, as it turned out, the ability to make loans to political parties). The consequence is that people with “no merit” are denied any role in running the country. Does that matter? It may to them.

Similarly, the government has argued against using juries in fraud trials, and many fear that juries will be removed from other trials too. Why? Because fraud cases can be too complex for jurors. In other words, generalists and people with little education should be phased out of this area too.

So is Britain a meritocracy now or not? And is that even something to be desired?

Ruth Lister, professor of social policy at Loughborough, suggests not. “As a distributional principle, meritocracy acts not as a ladder of opportunity but as an engine of injustice.” For a start, she says, many people’s ideas of merit don’t stand scrutiny. “A childcare worker who is skilled at working with children and gives herself 100 per cent to the job does not lack ability or commitment” – the generally accepted measures of merit – “and yet childcare workers are paid a pittance.

“We have a vicious circle. The low value attached to care work means it is low paid, which in turn encourages it to be lowly valued.”

John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College, Oxford, puts it the other way round. “If I find oil at the bottom of my garden and get rich, that’s got nothing to do with merit.”

Or as Peregrine Worsthorne, the former newspaper editor, puts it in an essay to mark the 50th anniversary of the idea of meritocracy: “Few meritocrats actually have merit, as is well illustrated by the number of time servers and arse lickers who manage to get to the top of most of our corporations.”

The term “meritocracy” was coined half a century ago by the late Michael Young, in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy.

“Michael Young was very much misunderstood,” says Geoff Mulgan, who runs the Young Foundation and has now published a collection of essays, including Worsthorne’s, to mark the half-centenary. “His book presented a satirical look into the future, but most people assumed that the book was a celebration of meritocracy.”

What could Young possibly object to? Most people these days regard meritocracy as unquestionably a Good Thing.

His greatest concern was that meritocrats would establish an oppressive elite. “It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none,” Young wrote in 2001, in a newspaper article directly addressed to Tony Blair, “No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”

He warned: “If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody's son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.”

As a result, Young believed, “All manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited. Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied. As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes.”

Young was a Labour man, but his suspicions about meritocracy are shared on the right. The Conservative education spokesman David Willetts quotes the free-market thinker Friedrich von Hayek. “A society in which it was generally assumed that a high income was proof of merit and a low income of the lack of it… would probably be much more unbearable [to unsuccessful people] than the one in which it was frankly recognised that there was no necessary connection.”

Widespread social mobility, on merit, first appeared after the 1870 Education Act introduced state-funded schooling. Before that, education was only for the rich. Another development, around the same time, was examinations for entry to the civil service.

And in the mid-20th century there was a big increase in upwards mobility, which some credit to grammar schools.

One who believes that is Stephen Pollard, author of A Class Act: The Myth of Britain’s Classless Society. In 1997, Pollard co-wrote a book with Andrew Adonis – now Lord Adonis, a minister for schools – concluding that state education, in particular the scrapping of grammar schools, damaged social mobility.

“My mother and father sacrificed my family’s annual holidays,” Pollard recalls, “and made do with a second-hand car so they could afford to send me to a private school. I got a good education but thousands of other bright children were denied that chance because their local grammar was closed down.

“The evidence is that for the first two thirds of the 20th century we were getting more mobile and in the rest of the century it was going the other way. That precisely coincides with the decline of state education and the abolition of grammar schools. We have taken a huge leap backwards.”

But others give a different explanation. Goldthorpe argues that economic and social change created greater opportunities in the professional classes during the 20th century. There was simply “more room at the top”, which meant bright working class children were able to attain social and financial success without displacing children from the middle class.

These days the biggest growth area is so-called McJobs – in service industries such as catering, retail and call centres. So the upward mobility has slowed drastically.

Sociologists have long believed that positions in the upper classes are “stickier” than others: it’s very rare to see really privileged families lose their positions.

On top of that, jobs today often have less rigorous entry requirements than the Victorian civil service. In PR, advertising and consultancy it's all about who you know, not what you know. Networking has come to be an extremely important way of securing admission.”

Thus, the hereditary principal continues to shape political careers. George W Bush, the son of a president, came to power after beating another birthright-politician, Al Gore. In the UK, Hillary Benn, the Labour deputy leadership candidate, represents the fourth successive generation of political Benns. These are not isolated cases. There are many others. One of the lesser known is Hilary Armstrong, who succeeded her father on his retirement a MP for northwest Durham. Armstrong, by delicious irony, is minister for social exclusion.

It’s not that the individuals in question don’t deserve their eminence. But as another essayist, Peter Wilby, puts it: “It’s precisely because the 60s and 70s saw so much upward social mobility that those now in top positions see nothing wrong with the outcomes. As they see it, their success was not the result of inherited privilege, but ability and effort. They deserve their success.”

And they’re not making room for anyone else. Another senior Labour politician, Alan Milburn wrote in the Sunday Times recently that it would be impossible to imagine somebody like himself, born and bred in a council house, reaching the cabinet in 25 years time.

The comedian Mark Steel is particularly scathing about this aspect of Blair’s legacy. “The prime minister says you can’t tax everyone because they will leave the country. That’s ridiculous. They didn’t all leave in the 1970s. Just look at how he fawns on these people. It’s not as if he puts up with them reluctantly. He loves them because they’re rich.

“There’s a great quote in Robin Cook’s memoir. He was talking to Blair about [Blair’s] son’s selective school and Roy Hattersley was there and they said Harold Wilson had sent his children to a comprehensive and one became a headmaster and the other was a professor in the Open University and Blair said, ‘I rather hope my sons do better than that!’

“For Blair, status and wealth are everything. It’s beyond him to think that education might be worthwhile for itself. He can’t possibly think along those lines.”

Certainly, New Labour has taken a grimly vocational, utilitarian approach to education. And placed considerable emphasis on giving advantage to students who show promise: in 2002, the government set up a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. As critics point out, this overlooks the individuals deemed to have no merit.

But Gordon Brown and David Cameron are both parents of children with special needs – so perhaps the next prime minister, whichever of the two that may be, will try to come up with more inclusive policies.

But don’t hold your breath. In 2001, Mulgan researched this at the Cabinet Office. His final report put forward ways to strengthen meritocracy by facilitating upward mobility but also positively reducing barriers to downward social mobility for “dull middle class children”.

The options included raising inheritance tax — or even abolishing inheritance altogether. How realistic is that? As Mulgan says now, with a chuckle, “This is the sharp end of the debate. If you are serious about having an open society, you have to make it difficult for parents to pass on privilege to their children.”

“When politicians talk about social mobility they always mean upwards mobility,” says Goldthorpe. It’s easy, he says, to read too much into the relatively scant data. “We don’t have any good information on this at the moment because in 1992 the General Household Survey stopped asking questions on it for some reason. The irony is that there’s never been so much interest in this, but we have not had such poor data for 30 years.”

He acknowledges that the Cabinet Office has done lots of work on social mobility recently, but says it pulled back from making hard commitments. “At one stage there was even talk about setting targets for upward mobility. That was abandoned after we asked if there would also be targets for downward mobility. You can’t have one without the other.”

“No politician will talk about that. I think they’re all being a bit dishonest. The fact is that it’s difficult to be against merit. It’s like motherhood and apple pie – all politicians say they’re in favour of it. But the level of analysis is very poor.”