Magazine article The Spectator

Status Anxiety: Toby Young

Magazine article The Spectator

Status Anxiety: Toby Young

Article excerpt

After Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan completed their report on civil service reform in 1854, in which they made the controversial recommendation that recruitment should be based on a competitive exam, the government carried out what today would be called a consultation . Among the more interesting objections was the view that the reforms would make the civil service less democratically accountable. This argument was summarised by Helen Andrews, an Australian policy wonk, in a fascinating essay entitled 'The New Ruling Class' published last summer: 'Civil servants who felt they owed their jobs to no one and nothing but their own merit would be independent, which was also to say impervious to checks and balances.'

One hundred and sixty-three years later, this warning about the first-ever meritocrats, namely, that they would come to see themselves as an elite whose intelligence and expertise trumped the will of the people, seems rather prescient. Isn't that exactly why the European and American elites got such a bloody nose in the EU referendum and the US presidential election?

Some will object to describing people like David Cameron and Hillary Clinton as 'meritocrats', as if that term should only apply to people who have raised themselves up by their bootstraps. But one of the oddities of meritocracy is that it has been more enthusiastically embraced by those born on the right side of the tracks. The well-to-do have seized upon the trappings of meritocracy as a way of legitimising and perpetuating their privileged status -- drilling their children to pass entrance exams to highly selective schools, encouraging them to attend the best universities, and generally doing everything they can to ensure they're bristling with the right credentials when they apply for membership of the professional elite.

Which isn't to say that no one from an underprivileged background ever broke into this club, or that every scion of a rich and powerful family ended up at a world-class university; only that meritocracy hasn't been responsible for as much social mobility as its original prophets hoped. Fifty years ago, the meritocratic principle may have accounted for a good deal of movement, both up and down the NRS social scale (A, B, C1, C2 and so on). …

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