‘Your old man’s barking!’ I remember hissing indignantly at my then best friend Toby Young way back in the 1980s after his father, Michael, had spent the evening patiently explaining his famous 1958 essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy, over ‘supper’ at the somewhat grand family home in, of course, Islington. I’d obviously been thinking about something more pressing all those times we’d discussed the classic text in GCSE Sociology — probably about which order I’d ‘do’ Pan’s People in, should the opportunity arrive in suburban 1970s Bristol — but of course I’d presumed that ‘Lord’ Young (dead giveaway) would have favoured the rise of a meritocracy, being a man of humble origin himself.
Instead, I listened, dumb with horror (and focaccia), as he gently outlined the way in which a meritocracy would probably produce a cruel elite possessing none of the noblesse oblige of the nobs. Well, 30 years on, I still believe that what this country needs is a bit more meritocracy, not less; better a few more monsters of merit — preens — than the monstrous regiment of nepotistic nobs currently running the show. I wish I’d known that evening that the American rich give far more proportionally to charity than the English rich, because the Yanks are certainly more meritocratic but also appear to have a far greater propensity for altruism.
James Bloodworth is one of the best writers on politics around, and I was pleased to see that I turn up in a cameo — in typically combative mode — on page 50, putting the boot into SADs (the Sons and Daughters of the famous, who have effectively colonised the few jobs that working-class kids could historically escape through, from journalism to showbiz).
This book is a veritable roll call of rotters, and Tony Blair, as is his wont these days, comes out of it as the biggest wrong ’un around, crowing horribly, ‘I rather hope my sons do better than that!’ during a discussion about Harold Wilson’s children becoming teachers. So much for education, education, education. He also commissions a social mobility report which concludes, quite reasonably, that the only way bright poor kids can move up is for dull rich kids to move down, and that increasing inheritance tax would be a useful part of this desirable outcome: ‘As a result, the report was quietly dropped.’ You can see Cherie flicking through the vast family property portfolio, tongue lolling from her greedy maw, looking over Tone’s shoulder and warning him not to do anything to make life less cushy for the Blair brats.
Bloodworth is especially good on the way the diversity divas have diverted attention from the lack of opportunities for a whole swathe of underprivileged children put beyond the pale of pity by their risibly named ‘white privilege’. (While writing this, I read of a survey revealing that trainee teachers are being pressured into ditching their regional — i.e. working-class — accents for the Queen’s English. As its author points out: ‘There is a respect and tolerance for diversity, yet accents do not seem to get this treatment — they are the last form of acceptable prejudice.’)
Bloodworth is such an elegant and passionate writer (not an easy combo) that the whiff of straw man which hangs around this book — he frowns on the idea of meritocracy while sighing over our obvious lack of one — does not annoy. But it’s a dismaying read, whichever way you slice it. Just imagine: someone born in the 1970s is less likely to be upwardly mobile than one born in the 1950s — like some awful parallel universe waiting for Doctor Who to come along and set things right.
‘In the UK, a person’s earnings are more likely to reflect their father’s than in any other country in the developed world.’ ‘Just three per cent of journalists have parents who work in unskilled occupations.’ I’ve never come across a book that made me want so much to pat myself on the back with one hand and pour a big sorrow-drowning drink with the other. But it has given me cause to remember my favourite motto — ‘He who dies rich dies shamed’ (Andrew Carnegie) — and continue to spread my modest wealth like a sailor on shore leave. The fleet’s in!