Tag Archives: meritocracy

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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A view from Calton Hill

Heraclitus, the notoriously enigmatic pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that existing objects could be characterised by pairs of contrary properties, and that these properties, by virtue of the tension between them, were essential to the continued flourishing of the whole. He termed this phenomenon the ‘unity of opposites’. Somehow, he thought, the ongoing conflict between opposite properties enabled a single, unified object to persist.

Although it is unlikely that Heraclitus – who is said to have preferred aristocratic models of government – would have intended it, his odd theory seems highly applicable in the field of politics (that is, as Heraclitus would probably have understood the term, ‘of, for or relating to citizens’). There is, I think, something to the idea that those societies that flourish and endure are, very often, characterised by just this sort of dynamic tension, between different classes or income groups – and that where the gap between those groups or classes becomes too great that cohesion is threatened.

I was thinking about this on Sunday as I walked up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, with its curious collection of classical monuments (Dickens described it as ‘a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture’) and its tremendous views across the city and out to the Firth of Forth. This must be among the best places in Edinburgh to begin learning about the city and how it developed, from the smoke-blackened, boozy disorder of the Old Town and its narrow medieval streets, to the precise geometrical elegance of the New Town’s squares and circuses.

The development of the New Town in the late eighteenth century saw the wealthier citizens of Edinburgh move out of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Old Town to more genteel, spacious homes set on wide roads, with large, green civic spaces. The poor remained in the relative – and fast deepening – squalor of the Old Town. Overcrowding, poverty and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics of cholera and other diseases in the first half of the next century.

The Old Town of the eighteenth century was cramped and it was dirty. But it was also vibrant, brilliant and exciting, a melting pot of new thinking and ideas, in which the poorest citizens rubbed shoulders daily with the wealthiest and most educated, and where the old order was taken apart and new principles put in its place. The Scots, David Hume wrote, were now ‘the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe’, and that at a time when ‘we have lost our Princes, Our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the presence of our chief Nobility’. This loss did not create a vacuum but rather a space for debate, fierce, convivial and fearless, much of it centred on the Old Town’s numerous taverns, of which Hume, among others, was a notable and enthusiastic frequenter.

A number of factors made the Scottish Enlightenment possible, among them the quality of Scottish education and its openness to ideas from the continent. The growth in the educated population of Scotland meant this renaissance in thought was not confined to a small number of literati, or to the ranks of the aristocracy, as it was in France, but was, as the historian Tom Devine notes, ‘widely diffused throughout the ranks of the educated classes’. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were not only aired and debated in the pubs of Edinburgh’s New Town, but were also ‘described, analysed, questioned and refuted in pamphlets and journals such as the Scots Magazine, in the contemporary press, in sermons and surveys like John Sinclair’s massive Statistical Account of Scotland, published in the 1790s, which provided an examination of the way of life of over 900 parishes compiled by the local ministers.’

It was this broad dissemination, Devine argues, that ‘ensured the social acceptance of basic ideas that might otherwise have remained arcane, remote and abstract’ and which helped ground them in observation and the practicalities of life in eighteenth-century Scotland. They saw human experience as the touchstone of true understanding. The Edinburgh literati may have been, to varying degrees, born to privilege but their lives were not so remote from those of other classes that they could be indifferent to them, while the spread of school education in Scotland during the second half of the seventeenth century and the rapidly expanding middle class meant there was a large and engaged audience interested in their ideas.

Undoubtedly, too, those ideas and the rejection of hitherto unquestioned – and unquestionable (Scotland’s last execution for heresy took place as recently as 1696) – authority seeped into the consciousness of the poorer classes of society. The wealthiest had close, face-to-face relationships with the poorest, often sharing the same buildings (the rich on the upper floors, the poor on the lower ones) and they frequented the same churches, brothels and alehouses. Skilled artisans helped swell the membership of the city’s numerous learned clubs and societies, and university access widened to include the children of merchants and tradesmen.

The nineteenth century saw Edinburgh’s New Town flourish, while the Old Town plunged deeper into squalor and increasingly wretched poverty. The rich and the poor began to lead separate lives. By 1880, when the educationalist, environmentalist and town planner Patrick Geddes moved there, the Old Town was notorious for its appalling housing and poor living conditions. Geddes moved into James Court, where David Hume had once lived but which was now little more than a slum. Geddes believed that social change needed to come from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from above (however well-meaningly). He improved his own building and encouraged his neighbours to work together in improving theirs as well as their wider community. Geddes also believed that a vibrant community required a mixture of people from different backgrounds living side by side and enjoying the kind of face-to-face relationships they had in mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh. He founded a hall of residence in renovated properties around Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, including one in Riddle’s Court, another former Hume residence, which now houses, among other things, the Edinburgh offices of the Workers’ Educational Association (appropriately, Geddes’s Latin inscription above the archway to Riddle’s Court reads Vivendo Disciumus – ‘By Living We Learn’)

Geddes didn’t believe in getting rid of tradition. His idea was to build around it, improving what was good and valuable, building better housing where necessary, and making use of derelict spaces, often through the creation of gardens and other green spaces, which he thought essential to the flourishing of community. He saw the city as a microcosm of society, as a kind of blueprint for wider social organisation. A flourishing community, he thought, meant people of different classes living common lives. This created the best conditions for making successful societies. Likewise, in his academic life (Geddes purchased the Outlook Tower on Castle Hill – now known as the Camera Obscura – to be a sort of sociological laboratory), he believed in bringing disciplines together, in thinking and learning holistically – that our view is better when we see the connections, the ways in which things are held together, as well as the things themselves. Places of learning, like people, need spaces in common.

I’ve written before about Machiavelli’s Discourses and his view of social conflict as useful, even necessary, to the success of a state. He is perhaps as unlikely a bedfellow of Geddes as you could wish to find, but they do have one thing in common. Machiavelli, like Geddes, saw that a stable, successful society required a degree of commonality between classes, a sense that all classes are living comparable lives, a part of the same society. The rich, Machiavelli argued, should not become so rich that they become arrogant and indifferent to the needs and demands of other groups, and the poor perceive them as remote and out of touch. And the poor should not be so poor that they live without hope or the prospect of a better life. These ‘opposites’, to borrow again the language of Heraclitus, need to be in close enough proximity to make possible the sort of dynamic tension that is necessary for the survival and flourishing of a society. As Geddes also saw, vibrant communities are untidy communities, mixed, diverse and dynamic, with a rough equality between classes – enough at least for people to see that they are living their lives in common.

This is a hard lesson for us today. In recent decades we have seen, on a larger scale, a process not dissimilar to that which split Edinburgh in two in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The rich have become richer, their lives ever more remote, their wealth unimaginable to the vast majority of ordinary people and their grip on politics, the professions, the arts and the higher reaches of the education system increasingly firm. At the same time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned this week, insecure, low-paid work is putting record numbers of working families in poverty. Two-thirds of the people who have found work in the past year are employed in jobs paying less than the living wage (with many on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours). Between 2008 and 2013 average pay for the lowest paid fell by 70p per hour for men and 40p per hour for women, while the richest 1,000 Britons increased their wealth by more than £155 billion. Growing inequality unsurprisingly correlates with declining upward mobility. Life chances are increasingly dependent on who your parents are.

The education system, one of the key means by which we might reduce poverty and narrow the income gap, is, at the same time, becoming more and more polarised, with a broad liberal education – another fairly basic requirement of human flourishing – increasingly the preserve of the children of the rich, while the less advantaged make do with training which may give them skills but falls some way short of providing them with an education. As Michael Young foresaw in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, an education system which confers approval on a small minority of its population (and qualifies the success of everyone else) effectively hands that minority control of the means to reproduce itself. To see the consequences of this you might compare, as Young later did, the social origins of members of Atlee’s post-war cabinet with those of Tony Blair’s – or with those of Ed MIliband’s shadow cabinet.

Little wonder then that the political class has become less plural and politics a much narrower business in which most fundamental questions – including those about the conditions in which people can best flourish – are off limits. Austerity politics has become a most effective cloak under which to pursue often fairly radical ideological goals to which human ends are secondary – all largely unchallenged by a compliant media with an equally strong and undisclosed ideological commitment. It is depressing indeed, but perhaps unsurprising, that in times such as these a party of closed-mined xenophobes – a coalition of the rich, the ignorant and the desperate – should be considered a compelling, even progressive, alternative.

Patrick Geddes recognised that people, like any life form (Geddes was also a botanist), thrive in the right conditions. Politics should be about identifying and helping improve these conditions for everyone. As those great theorists of adult education John Dewey and R.H. Tawney also saw, at the heart of this must be the idea of a common life – a life which embraces all in a community, treats every member as free and equal, and attaches equal value to the needs and aspirations of all. Sadly, we are fast becoming not one but two countries – divided by wealth, opportunity and prospects for advancement. Working-class people are not only unrepresented (fulfilling Michael Young’s prediction of the consequences of educational selection) but, by and large, unheard, except in contexts which demean or diminish them. As Geddes realised, only by being immersed in the lives people lead can you begin to understand them. The government’s boasts about the resilience of the economy mean little when the lives of so many are getting worse, with little out there to give them hope of something better in the future. I doubt many members of the current political class have much understanding of how utterly demoralising and damaging it is to be branded a failure by the education system and then denied the means of turning things around and making your life better. It seems that everywhere you look second chances are either disappearing or becoming unaffordable to most. Geddes showed that people can build communities which are rich, vibrant and fulfilling, but we must first create conditions which, in the enduringly brilliant words of Raymond Williams, ‘make hope practical rather than despair convincing’.

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