By Deakin, Quentin
Contemporary Review , Vol. 293, No. 1703
SUPPOSEDLY we live in an age of "liberal consensus" where competition is frowned upon. (1) Many schools, for example, resist traditional speech-days for fear of upsetting the losers and inflating winners" egos. The notion that modern Britain is competition-shy doesn't come from a single wing of the political spectrum. The Right complains that attempts lo compensate for under-privilege, such as women-only shortlists, put obstacles in the way of fair competition. The Left counters that genuine meritocratic competition is impossible when money, private education and inherited privilege guarantee preferment. However, Left or Right, few seem to challenge the notion that competition as an organising principle is intrinsically good. My argument is that competition's benefits are exaggerated and its dangers largely ignored.
Competition is the main organising principle in Britain today. It is inescapable. Anxious parents compete to get their children into the right schools, often moving house to do so. Schools, teachers and pupils have been forced into fierce competition through targets and league tables, enforced by a tough inspection regime and the threat of closure. Many pupils now sit public exams over several successive years. On leaving school most will compete to get into a university, particularly one of the elite Russell group. Should they succeed in getting a job, target-driven American-Japanese management models demand ever greater productivity, pitting country against country, workplace against workplace, colleague against colleague. From nurseries to nursing homes, cheap flights to beach huts, we compete for almost everything.
Of course, the centrality of competition to human existence s not new. All species compete for food and territory and the human species has proved particularly fierce. Re-branded as "nations', human tribes compete for resources. As individuals humans love to compete. In medieval times, artists angled for patrons, nobles for higher rank, craftsmen for 'master' status in their guilds. From antiquity to the present, political rivalries have spilled over into intrigue, corruption or bloodshed. The great formal competitions have a heriage of millennia, whether it be the Olympics or the Mandarin civil service entrance exams. The power struggles after Lenin and Mao remind us that, however egalitarian a society may profess to be, the urge to outdo others, rather than simply achieve a personal best, clearly answers to deep human needs. The imperative of biological reproduction no doubt plays a large part. (2)
Nevertheless, my hypothesis is that British society is now imbued with a culture of competition that was less to the fore even fifty or sixty years ago. However, let it be conceded that the head-line evidence makes opposite claims. In 1950 we had grammar and secondary modern schools. Sixty years later these have been largely replaced with all-ability, non-selective comprehensives. However, the requirement for intellectual skills in jobs is greater than ever; where once many could offer their muscle power every child must now compete with their brains, no matter if their IQ is in single figures. Although we still have the minimum wage and benefits, wage cutting and a quick dismissal are once again becoming the order of the day especially as the Coalition Government emphasises its need to 'cut the deficit'.
Looking further back, the British Empire trade monopoly has given way to a deadly struggle for global investment. Emotionally, the public seems in two minds about competition. In Britain most seem to have adjusted to work place assessment as the norm without contemplating industrial action (unlike France) and many choose the viewing of competition as their main form of leisure. On the other hand, we are coy, even disdainful, about winning, we cry with the losers and we back the talentless underdog in a plethora of TV talent contests. My students may be competitive, but it certainly isn't 'cool' to show it. …