The Myth of Meritocracy in Britain


One of the core precepts of modern Liberal Democracy is the concept of “meritocracy”. Such a term is not often bandied around in the political arena by politicians and their supposedly critical media: this is no coincidence. Discussion of the existence of one of our political systems’ most core and essential (in theory) values is deliberately avoided by all corners of the establishment. Do you think our political class of financial moghul, un-landed aristocrats and exploitative businessmen want us to have a healthy discussion around a topic they have no regard for whatsoever? Of course not. The simple truth is that meritocracy in Britain – as well as elsewhere – is a myth. If indeed we ever had it, it went by unappreciated and strictly regulated. As soon as the opportunity arose to dismember any of the remaining blocks of the welfare state (which could safeguard some level of meritocratic advancement) arose it was seized upon and has been continuously degraded ever since.

20130209_LDD001_0Due to this we stand today helpless as we watch our alarmingly entrenched political elite roll back any gains the common man saw in British politics. This is combined with a financial retrenchment unseen for generations. A recent article in the Observer illustrated this very aptly [See the Observer 08/13/15, p. 17]. Within the article we can see evidence of a great decline in middle class households, resulting in a mass polarization of wealth to opposing ends. Since 1980 (to 2010) we see a 43% decline in middle income households, with an 80% increase in those that are wealthy. On top of this the article states that we have encountered a 60% increase in those households in poverty! This change probably seems more stark than it actually is: trends are long term so when displayed in such a sweeping manner they can be shocking. However, when combined with a decline in turnout (particularly in lower class voters), an increase in the wealthy politicians (most noticeably those from Oxford and Cambridge), we see a long term alienation of the poor. This is all at the expense of the advancement and political solidification of the rich and wealthy.

images (2)What is possibly even more surprising is the lack of political opposition to this from the working class people and their institutions. Support among the left has appeared to flock to the middle class reformist Green Party and the right-wing xenophobic UK Independence Party. Both of which offer very little change in the class makeup of our political elite. One probable explanation for this is the long term increase in housing prices and living costs, which rise exponentially above those of wages. Such disparity forces ordinary people to work harder to make ends meet, disengaging with extra-work activities, save those which offer some element of much needed escapism (i.e. drinking, gaming and gambling to name a few). Interestingly such disengagement allows the wealthy political class to go unchecked, quickly eroding what institutions and organisations which check their advancement. Privatisation in Britain is rife: and lethally so. Even positive arguments for such changes can be easily dismantled when considered in the wider economic atmosphere of a polarisation of wealth and earnings. In a highly unequal economy privatisation benefits only those already with wealth, whilst those without end up with rising bills and costs due to newly emboldened bosses maximising profits from their recently purchased businesses. The priority in such companies moves from services and wider based societal benefits and long term goals to short-term profit maximisation. Users are treated less like individuals than mindless consumers who fuel the managements profits and pay-packets. Managers and supervisors are either co-opted, demoted or even sacked. Thus we see the polarisation in action.

To bring the discussion to a conclusion I will return to the term “meritocracy” itself. Simply defined it amounts to ‘advancement according to merit’, or the ‘holding of power according to merit’. The latter is somewhat problematic, particularly due to my obvious political alignment. Defined as such we encounter a plethora of complications: WHO defines merit? What counts as advancement? What kind of “talent” are we looking for? All of these questions are too broad and theoretical to be simply answered here, but what is important is that they have been asked, as without posing such theoretical enquiries we shall never be able to amply assess our mistakes.

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