Remembering “Rise of the Meritocracy” was a satire


From the New Statesman:

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

Reading this reminded me that Michael Young intended his 1958 essay “The Rise of the Meritocracy” as satire, not as a platform for policy. As the Economist noted:

Young… conjured up an image of a society obsessed with talent. The date was 2034, and psychologists had perfected the art of IQ testing. But far from promoting social harmony, the preoccupation with talent had produced social breakdown. The losers in the talent wars were doubly unhappy, conscious not only that they were failures but that they deserved to be failures. Eventually they revolted against their masters.

The vote to leave the EU feels precisely like a revolt by the “losers in the talent wars” against their masters.

Young, at least, offered a positive vision for what it could, should be like:

“In the light of this approach [they] sought to give a new meaning to equality of opportunity.

“[It] should not mean equal opportunity  to rise up in the social scale, but equal opportunity for all people, irrespective of their ‘intelligence’, to develop the virtues and talents with which they are endowed, all their capacities for appreciating the beauty and depth of human experience, all their potential for living life to the full.

“The child, every child, is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society. The schools should not be tied to the occupational structure, bent on turning  out people for the jobs at any particular moment considered important, but should be devoted to encouraging all human talents, whether or not these are of the kind needed in a scientific world. The arts and manual skills should be given as much prominence as science and technology.

“[All] schools should have enough good teachers so that all children should have individual care and stimulus. They could then develop at their own pace to their own particular fulfilment. The schools would not segregate the like but mingle the unlike; by promoting diversity within unity, they would teach respect for the infinite human differences which are not the least of mankind’s virtues. The schools would not regard children as shaped once and for all by Nature, but as a combination of potentials which can be cultivated by Nurture.”



Man walks into a column, no.41: Conferences

I’m writing this in a dingy hotel room in Brussels, where I’m staying for an EU conference on employee financial participation. If you’re still reading by this point then frankly I’m amazed, and tempted to suggest you should get out more. For those still with me (hello Mum!) I’ll continue.

This is only the second ‘international’ conference I’ve been to, the first being almost exactly two years ago, when I was jammy enough to speak at a conference on urban governance in Porto Alegre – home of participatory budgeting – in Brazil. Jammy in that it’s a great city, and secondly because my colleague who was originally invited – a real expert – couldn’t go.

Predictably, my trip to Brazil was one of the most surreal experiences of my young life. My first ever long haul flight was considerably marred by sitting in the seat next to a very very fat walrus of a man, and then having a ten hour stopover in Sao Paulo airport. On the plus side this gave me the time I needed to read the book that had brought my colleague to the attention of the Mayor of Porto Alegre. Reading about democratic urban governance in a strange South American airport is not, however, an experience I am particularly looking to repeat.

The conference itself was completely bizarre, alienatingly so. Unlike the Brussels gig where everyone speaks fluent English, I keenly felt my complete lack of Portuguese and spent the entire time trying to decipher rather sub-par English translation through headphones. Not the most natural mingler anyhow, I spent every available break chain smoking in the blistering heat, and trying to avoid the racist Greek professor who felt a kinship with me due to our having studied at the same university.

This time things feel much more familiar and less overwhelming (not least in that I am rather more confident in what I’m speaking about). And whilst – honestly – there was another obese man sitting next to me on the Eurostar, the seats were rather larger and the journey considerably shorter.

Tomorrow morning I shall be talking about the inherent tension between the Coalition Government’s ambitions for nationwide take up of employee ownership and its localism agenda (how to achieve widespread change when each local area gets to make up its own mind?). I shall mention my belief that yes, the relative lack of evidence about public sector mutuals is an issue but suggest that evidence only persuades so many people, some of the time, and say that we need broadly distributed political leadership to move forward. And I shall underline my strongly-held belief that we must not forget that the mutuals agenda is first and foremost about real people making difficult decisions during challenging times. And then I shall hop on the train again, fervently hoping to be seated next to someone slim.