May’s ‘meritocracy’ might be on hold, but the ideas behind it are here to stay

Race to the top? EPA/David Jones

In the aftermath of the shocking general election result, it seems that significant elements of Theresa May’s manifesto have been scrapped. As the Conservative government struggles to cobble together enough support to advance its agenda in a precariously balanced House of Commons, controversial measures such as the pledge to re-introduce selective education have been cast aside.

The reintroduction of grammar schools in particular formed the core component of May’s pledge to transform Britain into the “world’s great meritocracy”:

What kind of society do we want to be? … I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.

I want us to be a country where everyone plays by the same rules; where ordinary, working class people have more control over their lives and the chance to share fairly in the prosperity of the nation.

And I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

But does this mark the end of meritocracy in Britain? A history of the concept suggests otherwise.

The term “meritocracy” was first coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. A powerful piece of dystopian fiction, it describes a society organised according to the formula “IQ + Effort = Merit” – a place where those born without the intelligence or the capacity to work hard are cast aside, while those lucky enough to possess ambition and a high IQ are showered with resources and propelled up the social ladder.

In this world, the elite feel they deserve their exalted position, and hoard ever more rewards for themselves. And as intelligence is passed from one generation to the next, the meritocrats pull up the ladder, ultimately becoming a repressive, heartless and distant ruling caste.

Young was on the political left. Before he published The Rise of the Meritocracy, he had authored Labour’s 1945 manifesto – boldly titled Let Us Face the Future – and served as head of the party’s research department. But by the time he came to write The Rise of the Meritocracy, he’d become increasingly disillusioned with Labour’s commitment to “big-state” socialism and its support for the tripartite system of secondary education, under which children were “streamed” into three different types of school depending on their performance at the 11-plus exam.

Young wanted to highlight the significant shortcomings of equality of opportunity and encourage the left to think harder about the kind of egalitarianism they supported. But despite the potent dystopianism of his vision, they didn’t heed his warning.

Aspiration rewarded

For Labour’s Harold Wilson, who became prime minister in 1964, transforming Britain into a meritocracy was essential if the country was to harness what he called the “white heat of the technological revolution”. As he saw it, meritocracy would replace Britain’s amateurish, gentlemanly culture with a new class system that rewarded brains and effort. These “new men” (and they were almost invariably men) would deliver economic growth and raise the standard of living for the entire country. By trusting the dispassionate meritocrats to run the national economy, all Britons would benefit.

With the end of the 1960s, the rise of comprehensive schools and a significant economic downturn, it appeared meritocracy would be consigned to the scrapheap of history, a forgotten buzz-word to describe the idealism of a bygone age. The concept, it seemed, failed to speak to a period characterised by political instability and social upheaval.

It returned to the political agenda, however, as a relatively under-explored component of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979. The rise of the grocer’s daughter seemed like the most meritocratic of political careers, and was a key organising principle for the sort of society she wanted to build: a nation which rewarded aspirational, risk-taking entrepreneurs. Gone, therefore, was meritocracy’s association with economic growth, technical expertise and detached experts.

Standing on merit: Thatcher and Blair. Andrew Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Meritocracy’s high-water mark, however, came under New Labour. For Tony Blair, the concept helped to distance his party from both the zealous statism of the old left and the social fissures created by Thatcherism. As he said in 2001: “We are not crypto-Thatcherites. We are not old-style socialists. We are what we believe in. We are meritocrats.” Michael Young, still keeping an eye on British politics, was less than enamoured with these sorts of banal statements, and lamented Blair’s failure to recognise the “dangers of what he is advocating”.

But the meaning of meritocracy had shifted a lot in the decades since Young’s 1958 vision. Instead of creating a benevolent new class of elite technocrats to govern in the common interest, the word was invoked by the likes of Blair and David Cameron as shorthand for a society which rewarded those who responded to the needs of the free market.

While May might have curbed her explicitly meritocratic plans for the 2017 Queen’s speech, the concept she subscribes to hasn’t lost its rhetorical and political force. In the short term, its relevance depends on whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can win over the public with its more expansive form of egalitarianism, which focuses more broadly on equality of resources and state support.

But then again, the ideas that animate British meritocracy have been counted out before. For all that Labour’s vision seems to be cutting through while May slims her plans down, meritocratic ideas will surely be front and centre again before too long.