I was interested in this article asking whether meritocracy in the UK is a sham. I live in Cambridge and for a time I used go and write in the Cambridge University Library (I was eligible for a library card at the time as a member of staff of Cambridge’s other, marginally less famous, university: Anglia Ruskin). I got into the habit of working in the cafe there -I find a background hum of voices more conducive to writing than absolute silence- and I can tell you that I could go all day without seeing a single black face, or hearing a single regional accent. There’d be some foreigners, but the British people in there, students and academics, were almost all white and almost all spoke with the distinctive accent, somehow both languid and gushing, of the English private school system. (I myself was no exception btw: I too am white, I too went to private school.) That tells you quite a lot, I think, about the extent to which we live in a meritocracy!
What we do live in, though, is a society which sees being a meritocracy as a desireable goal, a society which, when it talks about equality, talks about equality of opportunity, about removing the obstacles that prevent gifted people from poor backgrounds from achieving their potential. There’s not a lot of talk about people whose talents are not exceptional, people who are not especially bright, people who are of average or below average ability, even though this group, by definition, includes more than half of the population.
Equality of opportunity is desireable, but it’s not sufficient, a point made in the article by the former Labour leader, Ed Milliband (someone who I never thought I’d look back on with some degree of nostalgia!). A meritocracy, per se, would not necessarily be good society. In fact, thinking about it now, I’d go as far as to say that, if I was designing a society in which the power of an elite was to be permenantly entrenched, I’d make it a meritocracy, and give it an excellent universal educational system, designed to ensure that anyone with above average ability, from whatever background, could be identified from an early age and channelled to a position in society commensurate with those abilities. That way the elite could be constantly strengthened, because it would continously co-opt the most able and continuously deprive therest of the population of those who would otherwise have been their natural leaders.
Or am I being unfair? I suppose that what would moderate such a society, and make it more humane, would be that the elite would contain many people who had memories of, and family connections with, the rest of society, whereas the more stratified system we have now means that many people (including some of those I overheard in the University library) may never really have known anyone from outside of their own class.