The shared society and the myth of meritocracy

Theresa May made a revealing foray into the world of ‘blue-skies’ policy thinking at the weekend with the publication of a Sunday Telegraph article in which she described her mission to tackle ‘some of the burning injustices’ that ‘undermine the solidarity of our society’ through the creation of ‘the shared society’. The article is worth reading in full not because the notion of a ‘shared society’ is likely to prove particularly useful or long-lived – the fate of its predecessor, the ‘big society’, suggests otherwise – but because it tells us rather a lot about the kind of society the Prime Minister would like to create. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not so very different to the one we already inhabit.

Taking last June’s referendum vote, rather oddly, as a mandate ‘to seize the opportunity of building a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’, May promises to address the ‘everyday injustices that ordinary working class families feel are too often overlooked’. More ‘obvious’ injustices – things like child poverty and social inequality, I assume – have enjoyed the spotlight for too long and, while they are no closer to being solved, it seems it is time to move on. Perhaps the problem is that progress against those issues it just too straightforward to evaluate. Instead, May’s focus will be on less tangible and harder-to-measure problems such as job insecurity, the cost of living and ‘getting your children into a good school’. Despite protestations that ‘there is more to life than individualism and self-interest’, she is not prepared to attribute any nobler sentiments to the working-class people she writes about. May’s view of working people’s day-to-day worries is one of unrelenting self-interest. This makes sense, since the appeal May makes is not to lofty ambitions for a better society but to a mean-spirited concern that someone might be getting something they aren’t entitled to. It’s socialism for the small of heart.

May’s vision, she goes on to explain, is of a ‘shared’ society that ‘doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another’, where the ‘social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, countries and nations are the things that define us and make us strong’. She promises to ‘move beyond the narrow focus on social justice – where we help the poorest – and social mobility – where we help the brightest among the poor’. Instead, her government will engage in ‘wide-ranging’ social reform to give ‘those who feel that the system is stacked against them’ the ‘support they need’. So far, so vague. What specific policies does May have in mind? These will be policies that ‘give a fair chance to those who are just getting by, as well as those who are most disadvantaged’. And more specifically still? ‘From tackling the increasing lack of affordability in housing, fixing broken markets to help with the cost of living, and building a great meritocracy where every child has the opportunity of a good school place, we will act across every layer of society to restore the fairness that is the bedrock of the social solidarity that makes our nation strong.’

There is little content here with which to engage but the use of the term ‘meritocracy’ is particularly revealing. It is an unintentional indicator of where the government’s real values and intentions lie and of the hollowness of May’s rhetoric about social solidarity. The term ‘meritocracy’ was, of course, coined by the social entrepreneur Michael Young for satirical purposes. He applied it to an imagined future society (again, not so very different to our own) in which elites devise a system whereby ‘merit’ becomes associated with the attributes they possess and, by grading all children against their notion of ‘merit’, create a ‘new social class without room in it for others’. Class and racial inequalities are thus ignored, while those in power, overlooking their huge advantages and the overwhelming odds stacked in their favour, come to believe in the myth of natural superiority they have created. As Young put it in a 2001 Guardian article criticising Tony Blair’s misuse of the term:

With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its 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.

As Theresa May has made clear in a number of speeches and articles, fairness, for her, is interchangeable with the idea of meritocracy. That is why the first concrete example given by a cabinet minister (Justine Greening) of what policy under a shared society might look like was the government’s planned expansion of grammar schools. This policy, which might be described as the flagship policy of May’s government and which May has personally forced through in spite of the opposition of many senior members of her own party, is regularly cited by the Prime Minster and her education secretary as a policy with fairness at its heart. Yet all the evidence tells us that in areas where selection takes place poorer pupils fare less well. In fact, grammar schools are not about social mobility at all, nor have they ever been. They make it much harder for poorer children to get on; ensuring those who can afford to pay can coach their children into passing the 11-plus. The vast majority of grammar schools admit only a tiny proportion of children from the poorest families. This is the very stuff of Michael Young’s dystopian nightmare, with the testing of children and young people fetishised and educational selection rife.

This, it seems, is what Theresa May understands by meritocracy – a system rigged in favour of those who already hold all the cards, where warm words are offered instead of concrete measures to address the real and entrenched inequalities that do inestimable harm to our society, and where interventions introduced in full knowledge of the harm they will do the poorest are justified in terms of social mobility. May’s latest speech on mental health was a case in point. She promised training for teachers to better identify mental health problems among students but offered no new money or any meaningful measures to address the causes of mental health problems among children and young people: reducing class sizes and moving away from the culture of relentless testing could be two useful measures, just for starters. In fact, May’s meritocracy is precisely what Michael Young satirized so brilliantly when he coined the term: a society organized to perpetuate and validate privilege; one in which the privileged are convinced they deserve whatever they can get their hands on, while those who have little are doubly damned: at once excluded and looked down on for it. If May is serious about addressing the causes of Brexit she should start closer to home – with the belief system which allows the rich to grab an ever-larger share of available wealth while telling those who are denied access to the same resources that they have only themselves to blame.

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