In March This Year, Red Nose Day Raised 35m [Pounds Sterling]. That's Less Than One Quarter of Philip Green's Annual Earnings: Nick Cohen on How Meritocracy Became a Reality in New Labour's Britain

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The worst fate for a satirist is to be taken at face value. In 1958, Michael Young, one of the authors of the 1945 Labour manifesto, looked at the country he had helped to create and decided he wasn't sure he liked the way it was going. Young invented the word "meritocracy", to describe what he saw as a coming dystopia, and, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, imagined what it would be like. It would be insufferable. Whereas aristocrats, who know they are the beneficiaries of an accident of birth, may on occasion show humility, meritocrats feel no reason to restrain their appetites. Young wanted to use mockery to show how, "if the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage".

In his imagined future, those excluded by the meritocrats revolt in 2034 and demand to know who set the criteria that held them down. The rebel manifesto states: "Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there would be no classes."

When The Rise of the Meritocracy was published, Young was warned by a classical scholar that he had made a terrible mistake: it wasn't done to create a word by mixing Latin and Greek. "I would, she said, be laughed to scorn." It didn't work out like that. Instead of attacking his linguistic inconsistency, the targets of the satire took the mockery as a compliment. To be a meritocrat was to hold power on the basis of merit, and who could propose a preferable system? Young watched with a weariness close to despair as "meritocrat" was turned from an insult to a compliment, and the meritocracy rose and rose until even the Labour Party decided that promoting meritocracy was its raison d'etre.

Admittedly, there were setbacks. In opposition, Tony Blair feared that the meritocratic utopia might never be reached. "We are light years from being a true meritocracy," he sighed in 1995. By 1997, he had perked up. "I want a society based on meritocracy," he proclaimed just before his election victory. After winning power, he made his intentions clear. "The Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy." The new Britain was coming and nothing could stop it because "the old establishment is being replaced by a new, larger, more meritocratic middle class". The future would be democratic because "the meritocracy is built on the potential of the many, not the few". It would be profitable because "the meritocratic society is the only one that can exploit its economic potential to the full for all its people".

For all Blair's enthusiasm, the question raised by Young's rebels remained as valid as ever: how do you evaluate? Educational achievement was the generally accepted measure. The 1990s produced a craze for exams, and, although there were complaints about the pressure on children and the quality of the marking, parents continued to judge schools on their performance in exam league tables, while new Labour aimed to get 50 per cent of the young to pass the exams needed for admission to university. The private schools were as keen on tests. They had abandoned their preference for good chaps over swots years before and become centres of academic excellence. These developments appeared benign, but they couldn't conceal the stresses of a meritocracy. Intellectually successful private schools enabled the coached children of the rich to secure the best grades. Self-made men or women who "deserved" their money could buy advantage for their children. Their families would move from a meritocracy to an aristocracy of wealth in a generation.

Once the examination process stopped, merit was to be judged by one criterion: money. …