Britain, Class, Education

The Myth of Meritocracy



A meritocratic society is often lauded as the best sort of society. But it seems too hard for politicians to implement. Until we become truly meritocratic we will get shoddy services and inept bureaucrats. Christopher Wheeler explains. 

‘Today we frankly recognise that democracy can be no more than aspiration, and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.’ Michael Young – The Rise of the Meritocracy 1958


The notion of a meritocracy is a powerful idea within British society; for centuries birth and connections mattered a great deal in someone’s life prospects and it meant that the thought of a nation judging people on their abilities and talents was a very attractive proposition.  Politicians from all parties consistently mention that the creation of a truly meritocratic society as the ultimate end goal for Britain. Everybody would have the chance to fulfil their potential no matter where they come from.

The major starting point for this drive to a meritocratic society was in the late Victorian period. Reforms were introduced to Civil Service exams and military commissions to ensure the most talented and able rose to the top.  Of course, in many respects these reforms, although important, had a rather superficial air to them as only a very select group of the population would ever have a chance to benefit from them. Also they were not designed to reform society into a meritocratic paradise but to make the running of government smoother and to placate public opinion, which had become disgusted at some of the worst excesses of the old system of privilege.  As the decades continued, the move towards compulsory education meant that certainly more people of ability were finding their way into the top jobs in banking, government and the State. But in many cases they were merely window-dressing to hide a still deeply un-meritocratic system.

Nevertheless by the 1960s many people believed that the process of creating a truly meritocratic society was almost at an end.  The justification for this was that lower middle class and working class children were becoming very important figures in many areas of society and had got to the top based on ability.  This though was an illusion, although a select few from the lower echelons of society may have risen to the top, the majority of the people in the most powerful and well-paid positions in society were still from a narrow social elite.Their connections and breeding meant that opportunities were open to them that equally clever or even cleverer individuals from lower down the social order could never access.  Even many of the examples of the apparent achievements of the meritocratic system were not as impressive as first appeared.

For example most of them had been to either Oxford or Cambridge and, once there, opportunities for advancement became much easier. Added to this, many had found mentors who also helped to open up doors which would otherwise have remained closed.

Forty to Fifty years later the position of the supposed meritocratic society is still pretty much the same with access to the best opportunities and jobs still almost non-existent for people without the right connections and background, who had not joined the right clubs or had been to the wrong school or university.  Many on the left of the political spectrum argue that the only way to break open society and create a meritocracy is for special treatment for people from less privileged or minority backgrounds. But this is without a doubt the worst kind of social engineering.

The key in fact to a meritocratic society is transparency in selection and recruitment.  When decisions are made, be they from schools, universities or employers, they should meet the following criteria:

All decisions should be based on ability, talent and especially qualifications which are quantifiable factors and easy for people to understand the reasons for selections.  Added to this, if someone is rejected there should be a proper justification based on facts and not just opinions and assumptions.  Benchmarks, criteria and results used to make selection or recruitment choices should be published and freely available to everybody. There should also be the anonymous publication of the results, qualifications and justifications for the selection of successful candidates.

Only by opening up selection and recruitment processes to the full glare of the public can society be assured that truly meritocratic decisions are being made.  We are right to be suspicious about whether appointments are based on ability when we consider why the Inland Revenue are unable to get their figures right for years in a row, why the Royal Mail does not seem to deliver at reasonable times or be particularly reliable or quick and, most damming of all, why civil servants think that £30 for a light bulb and thousands of pounds for basic ordinary computers is justifiable.

Transparency is the key for the emergence of a truly meritocratic society where ability and talent are the only proper criteria when selecting candidates.  At the present time no such transparency exists and therefore it is a widely held belief which seems to be backed up by experience and facts that the fabled meritocratic society does not exist and is a long way from being realised.  In Britain meritocracy is a myth and it is a sad indictment of the country that the old maxim is still true: ‘It is not what you know but who you know.’


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