No sacred cows

I like the idea of meritocracy as much as my father hated it

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

Last week I spoke at an event at Nottingham University to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Rise of the Meritocracy, the book by my father that added a new word to the English language. A dystopian satire in the same mould as Nineteen Eighty-Four, it describes a nightmarish society of the future in which status is based on a combination of effort and intelligence rather than inherited privilege.

That sounds like an improvement and, to my father’s annoyance, the word ‘meritocracy’ has come to stand for something politically desirable when he intended the book to be a warning. As a lifelong socialist, he didn’t like meritocracy because he thought it gave the appearance of fairness to the economic inequalities thrown up by free-market capitalism, thereby delaying the emergence of a more egalitarian society.

In my speech I explained that I liked meritocracy for much the same reason. I regard inequality as an inevitable by-product of limited government, which history teaches us is preferable to excessive state power. In common with many utopian socialists, my father believed the state would just ‘wither away’ once it had overseen a massive redistribution of wealth and power, but I’ve always been sceptical. Such optimism is contingent on a conception of human nature that is belied by science, particularly evolutionary psychology: that man is a peace-loving, altruistic creature who can be depended upon not to engage in predation, cruelty, warfare, sexual enslavement and homicidal violence once the workers’ paradise has been created.


I believe, with Kant, that out of the crooked timbre of humanity no straight thing was ever made, so all utopian political projects, whether originating on the left or the right, will inevitably involve a massive escalation in state power as their architects battle to contain our unruly natures. Better to trust our existing laws, institutions, customs, traditions and religions to keep us in line. If we can add meritocracy to this array of checks, so much the better.

But there’s a problem, which is that it seems to be undermining confidence in our system rather than underpinning it. Two books published last week — National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell and Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufmann — emphasise the extent to which the electoral upsets of the past few years have been fuelled by resentment against the merito-cratic elite.

As has been well documented, education level was a better predictor than income of whether a person voted Leave or Remain, just as it was of whether someone plumped for Hillary or Trump. Both books make the point that it isn’t just lack of opportunities that have alienated the poorly educated in Britain and the US. It’s also the elite’s callous disregard for their anxieties about the erosion of their communities. When the white working-class — and non-whites, too — express their concerns about mass immigration, they’re dismissed as ‘-racist’ and ‘xenophobic’.

One of the other speakers at the Nottingham University event was Dr Faiza Shaheen, director of the Corbynite think-tank CLASS. That stands for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, but its name is misleading in that Shaheen seemed more concerned about transgender rights and other identitarian causes than she did about the plight of Labour’s traditional supporters. To my ears, she sounded like a subscriber to the new woke version of Marxism in which the bourgeoisie has been replaced by straight white males and the proletariat with women and minorities.

Since this inevitably involves attacking ‘white privilege’ and ‘the patriarchy’, it’s a political narrative that seems unlikely to win back estranged working-class voters. On the contrary, Shaheen’s solution to our broken system seemed to be more meritocracy, urging members of the male, pale and stale establishment to make way for people like her. To underline the point, she is Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Chingford and Wood Green, Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency.

At the end of The Rise of the Meritocracy, the disenfranchised masses rise up and overthrow their new masters in 2033. That means we have 15 years to fix things, assuming my father’s prophesy is accurate. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think a Corbyn victory would help.

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free


Show comments
Close