lair has been looking for the big idea to counter Thatcher's
notion of the market and rolling back the state. The meritocracy
could be it. He has always seen the idea positively. He is
a typical meritocrat himself as are many members of the Cabinet.
He wants to incorporate the idea of the market into his big
idea. Meritocracy was not very prominent in Blair's Third
Way but he has mentioned it many times. He sees the value
of working class leadership and has made much of Prescott
as a mascot. Many other MPs from working class backgrounds
have been similarly incorporated.
People in the City, the new rich, are also liable to talk
about meritocracy and having got to where they are on their
own bat, without a silver spoon. The restraints on how rich
you could make yourself have now gone.
Similarly people in the universities think they should be
there because they deserve to be. No one could be sure who
deserves to be there. They are members of the 'lucky sperm
When I wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy I saw it
as a fantasy. But I've changed my mind. It has now begun to
happen in quite a big way. The idea is even more popular in
the USA where there are lots of books about it and the theory
My book was written as a warning of what might happen in
Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against
the meritocracy in 2033. It is highly unlikely the Prime Minister
has read the book but he has caught on to the word without
realising the dangers of what he is advocating. In the book,
the Technicians Party, which helped lead the revolution against
the meritocracy, was composed of older men who remembered
the socialism of the early 20th Century and young women fed
up with chauvinistic men. Their "Chelsea Manifesto"
spoke of a classless society and of recognising the genius
in everyone. But it is apparent that they would not have got
anywhere if the whole basis of the meritocratic society was
not being challenged by parents wanting to gain special advantages
for their children. These parents said, "why do we need
equal opportunities? We now have a new class based on merit".
The Blairites say, what's wrong with a society organised
around merit if it abolishes the old hierarchies of inherited
wealth and power? What is wrong with educational opportunities
for all? What is wrong with the children of the successful
having advantages and benefits of their parents' achievements?
This is what makes meritocracy such an insidious idea. It
makes divisions of wealth and power more difficult to overcome
because it suggests people are where they are because of merit
not inheritance and it also involves incorporating the leaders
of the working class, so the poor increasingly have no one
to speak for them, they are disenfranchised.
Education is most important in the selection of people for
social class positions. We have early streaming of those who
are regarded as dullards. They are put in the lower streams
and liable to stay there. Those put in the upper streams are
liable to think of themselves as an elite, surrounded by many
who have not been picked. They become smug early in their
lives and think the reason they got on is because of their
ability. This gives them quite a strong common bond.
Those with a superior education get the superior jobs, then
are able to move into the house to be nearer the best schools.
This all has long-lasting effects on the class structure.
It leads to a complacent, smug and self-aggrandising top class.
In the new social environment the rich and the powerful have
been doing mighty well for themselves. They have been freed
from the old kinds of criticism from people who had to be
listened to. This once helped keep them in check, it has been
the opposite under the Blair government. The business meritocracy
is in vogue.
So assured have the elite become that there is almost no
block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old
restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as
the book also predicted, all manner of new ways for people
to feather their own nests have been invested 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 and without a bleat
from the leaders of the party who once spoke up so trenchantly
and characteristically for greater equality.
Modern business leaders can rule the roost better than any
elite in the past because they are free from the articulate
leaders of the underclass. Ability of a conventional kind
which used to be distributed between the classes more or less
at random has become much more highly concentrated by the
engine of education. A social revolution has been accomplished
by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving
people according to education's narrow band of values. With
an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal,
education has put its seal of approval on a minority and seal
of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time
they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven
or before. The new class has the means at hand, and largely
under its control, by which it reproduces itself.
The underclass have been deprived by educational selection
of many of those who would have been their natural leaders,
the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class
who continued to identify with the class from which they came.
Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and powerful
in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry
between the haves and the have-nots. These people, like Bevan,
Morrison and Bevin, were around under Attlee and others with
Wilson but they are not around now.
People at the top are in a much stronger position now, while
people at the bottom have lost their leaders. They are more
sunken and the poor are more established and demoralised because
no one is now telling them how valuable they are.
Ethnic minorities have not been so effectively incorporated
into the meritocracy. The riots in Oldham and Bradford show
the alienation of youth who have do not have a stake in the
system. They would have joined the Technicians Party. They
represent a hope for the future.
What is to be done about those consigned to the lower depths?
It is a grim outlook. There are not many sparks to set the
fire alight. It will become more and more uncomfortable in
the cities with people driving in their locked cars and rarely
venturing into the poorer areas. There will be more disenchanted
youth not knowing what to do.
It appears that New Labour has ditched socialism. However,
if Labour could be won to a reinvented socialism around the
reformulation of traditional socialist ideas about equality,
all sorts could change. It would help if Mr Blair dropped
the word meritocracy from his vocabulary. Reviving local government
as a way of involving local people and giving them the training
needed for national politics would also help. The Labour Party
and its fringes remain the centre of gravity for politics.
It is important the all those who believe in greater equality
and redistribution and who see through the meritocracy argument
join with the campaign for Real Labour in taking these arguments
Michael Young, when Secretary of the Policy Committee
of the Labour Party, was responsible for drafting Let Us
Face the Future, Labour's manifesto for the 1945 election.
He has spawned many radical innovations including the Consumers
Society and the Open University.