For everyone who rises to the top, there is someone who sinks to the bottom. Eddie Ford takes a look at Alan Milburn’s meritocracy fraud
We are all middle class now. Or at least, so went the insidious, drip-feed propaganda of the post-war decades – endlessly promulgated by the mass media, clerics, talentless academics and prostituted ‘intellectuals’. Possession of a child or two at university, a car (or two), a credit card or three and a mortgage – thus permanently enriched by ever rising property prices, of course – not to mention a cheap holiday or two in the sun every year, obviously meant the bad old days of class war were finally over. Only dinosaurs, loony lefties and mad Marxists – hopelessly stuck in the past – thought otherwise.
What chutzpah, what cynicism – and how cretinous. How did anybody fall for it? Now, of course, the ‘never had it so good’ evangelism of the paid ideologues looks utterly threadbare, if not desperately wretched. Reality has well and truly set in – though no thanks, it has to be said, to a sudden outburst of brilliant political insight: rather due to the remorseless logic and unfolding laws of capitalism itself. So we have had the global financial meltdown and credit crunch, with its attendant evaporating house prices, negative equity, indebtedness, the viral spread of unemployment and general immiseration.
Perhaps shockingly, the working class never went away – it just got rebranded. Indeed, there are more of us than ever – as even mainstream commentators and former government ministers are beginning to admit. But old, hard-won political habits die hard and the term ‘middle class’ still has to be flung around like ideological confetti, like it is in the United States – but with the difference that even the mere existence of the working class (those dreaded words) is all but denied over there. Hence the compulsory and near endless rhetoric about ‘hard-working middle class families’.
Thus after dutifully sifting through 13,000 pages of incriminating evidence, Alan Milburn, the ex-secretary of state for health and a previous chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (and darkly rumoured to have been a Trotskyist in his heady student days at Lancaster University) last week unveiled Unleashing aspiration, in his capacity as chair of the 20-strong Panel on Fair Access to the Professions.1
The panel’s “final report” graphically highlights the embedded, structural pattern of class privilege and elitism that envelopes UK society – now more than ever. Or, as the BBC website put it, in an unusually frank and perceptive headline, “It’s not what you know, but who you know”. Now fancy that.
Unleashing aspiration tells us that Britain is a grotesquely unequal society, where the ensconced elite look after their own and poverty traps people from one generation to another. So, while only 7% of the adult population attended private schools, 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and one in three MPs went to such an institution. Out of the 12 professions examined in some detail, particularly medicine and the law, in nine of them the proportion of entrants coming from “well-off” families has been steadily increasing. For example, doctors born in 1970 typically grew up in families with an income nearly two thirds higher than the average.
For those with a strong stomach, or maybe a complete lack of social conscience, the damning statistics in the report just roll on and on. More than half of “top journalists” (print, radio and TV) were privately educated, and this percentage has actually increased since the 1980s – for all the regional accents you might often hear on Channel 4 these days, like that particularly irritating Geordie voice on Big brother.
There are, Unleashing aspiration informs us, more students of black Caribbean origin at London Metropolitan University than in all the 20 Russell Group universities combined. Just 60 of the 250 schools that operate cadet training, designed to feed ‘leaders’ into the army, are to be found in the state sector. As for graduate recruiters, in reality the vast majority target 20 or fewer university campuses, although there are actually 109 universities in Britain.
Closed shop society
In other words, ‘connections’ still matter – big time. Class advantage and having the foresight to be born into the right family continue to be the main keys to economic and social success in capitalist, dog-eat-dog, ‘cool’ Britannia. Hence the early installed confidence that comes from privilege, that old school tie, the not so old university rugby shirt, the right social deportment and accent, the correct holidays, the appropriately ‘exotic’ or ‘improving’ (and very well funded) gap year, and so on – all helping to propel you up that greasy and alluring pole. And, perhaps most cardinally of all, being bred with an instinctive flair for what you could call the ‘soft skills’ – just knowing how to please the right people at the right time. Not too much, not too little. When you can effortlessly do that, you know you have it. Doors open.
Welcome to the “closed shop society”, as Milburn not inaccurately describes the Britain of today. A society which continues to have a perverse and debilitating bias towards London and the south-east. And ruled over by an absurd Ruritanian monarchy and the ruthlessly moneyed.
Milburn’s Unleashing aspiration closely follows a study published in June by the London School of Economics Report and sponsored by the Sutton Trust – which came to depressingly similar conclusions.2 That is, Britain and the United States have the lowest social mobility out of the 10 ‘advanced’ countries studied – with Norway having the highest, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. As for Germany, it was placed at around the middle of the two poles, and Canada was found to be much more mobile than the UK.
Indeed, social mobility in Britain is actively regressing, while in the US it appears to be remaining “stable”. This is largely due, argued the report, to the “strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment” in the UK. So the “best” schools – as defined naturally by competitive league tables and exam results – remain “socially selective”, with overwhelmingly middle class children able to gain access to a much treasured and fought for place.
Additional opportunities to stay in education at age 16 and 18 disproportionately benefited those from “better off” backgrounds. For those born in the early 1980s this gap narrowed, but inequality of access to higher education has widened further. While the proportion of people from the poorest fifth of families obtaining a degree has increased from 6% to 9%, the graduation rate for the richest fifth has risen from 20% to 47%.
In conclusion, the “truly shocking” findings – to use the blunt words of Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust – are that those born in 1958 (like Alan Milburn himself) were more likely to “escape the cycle of deprivation”, or earn a better wage than their parents, than children born in 1970. Children born after 1970 had no subsequent improvement in social mobility. Professor Steve Machin of the LSE explained: “We had a very big expansion of the higher education system in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but contrary to many people’s expectations this actually reinforced social immobility”.
Of course, a lot of the agonising from Milburn and his Blairite ilk is to do with Norwich North post-by-election blues pure and simple, as the prospect of a Tory government looms ever closer. An ill-omen indeed, the by-election took place after the sudden resignation of Ian Gibson, a victim of the Telegraph-inaugurated and rightwing-led expenses ‘witch hunt’. Unsurprisingly the Tories stomped home to victory, gaining 39.5% of the vote, a 6.3% increase.
Under the impetus of the Norwich defeat, Milburn and co are desperately scrambling round for ideas – any idea, even if not the Big Idea we used to hear so much about. And maybe, just maybe, they reckon, a scare – and a solemn pledge – about the “forgotten middle class children” might secure, or win back, a lot of precious Daily Mail votes. Hence Milburn’s pontifications about how “the growth in social exclusivity”, if it is “not checked”, means that “more and more middle class children”, and “not just working class ones”, will “miss out”. For instance, he goes on, “internships” (so big in the US, of course) tend to “go to the few who have the right connections, not the many who have talent”. And the government-run Connexions careers advice service in schools, he says, “seems to have focused on the disadvantaged minority to the detriment of the aspirational majority”.3
Here, of course, Milburn directs us towards what is an almost sacred concept for mainstream politicians, whether Thatcherite, Blairite, Brownite or any point in between, and one they believe is a sure-fire electoral super-weapon. That is, to appeal to – and to be seen to be on the side of – the “aspirational”. After all, who could not want to be “aspirational”? Don’t we all ‘aspire’ to be something?
In response, communists pose the direct question – aspire to what exactly? It should not be forgotten that the idea of ‘aspiration’ is inextricably linked to the notion of a so-called ‘meritocracy’ – a wonderfully socialistic-sounding word which in fact masks a deeply reactionary and hierarchical approach to society.
Hardly surprising really, when you consider the origins of the word. The term was coined by Michael Young in his 1958 book, The rise of the meritocracy, originally written for the Fabian Society, which petulantly refused to publish it. Young was certainly no I Ching reading hippy sloucher either, having almost single-handedly written Labour’s 1945 manifesto as the party’s young director of research – thus, you could argue, he won the election for Clement Attlee.4
In Young’s hands, the term ‘meritocracy’ had an entirely pejorative meaning, the book imagining a nightmarish future in which one’s social place in life was determined by the bogus science – and cruel social engineering – of IQ tests plus ‘effort’. No egalitarian utopia, but an elitist dystopia – so much so that Young hypothetically posits a final revolutionary uprising against the hated meritocratic elite in the year 2033.
Understandably then, Young was most aggrieved – to put it mildly – when politicians in the US and the UK, notably a certain Mr Tony Blair, started to adopt and use it in an entirely positive (but brainless) sense. All of which led Young, it is worth remembering, to comment in 2001 that he had been “sadly disappointed”. The rise of the meritocracy was intended as a “satire”, a “warning” against what “might happen to Britain”, and Young dared to suggest that the then prime minister had “caught onto the word without realising the dangers of what he is advocating”. By this he meant the creation of a “new class” with the means to reproduce itself, leading to a situation where the “rich and the powerful have been doing mighty well for themselves” – and, what is more, they are actively encouraged to believe that they “deserve whatever they can get”.5
Communists have no interest in criticising the Labour government over its failure to realise “social mobility”. The concept is wedded to the needs of an expanding capitalist economy – securing its traditional cadre of bureaucratic and military servants, buying off the upper section of the working class with promises of entry into the middle classes, or even into the bottom end of the bourgeoisie itself – and thus a means of stabilising the existing social order.
Does that mean we are indifferent to the education system, that we worship the working class as a slave class? Far from it. Capitalism wants drones. We want educated revolutionaries who aspire to master all of the world’s cultural riches. Education ought to be an ongoing life-long process which aims to develop to the maximum the talents and social-cultural personality of everyone, and the flowering of well-rounded individuals who can participate fully in society. Self-evidently, this requires a broad and critical education, which leads to the collective and self-emancipatory empowerment of all.
Of course, that cannot be fully realised under capitalism. But we fight for it and can take real steps in that direction … and to the extent that we do, the days of capitalism become numbered – if we use our power not just to defend jobs, to improve wages and conditions or even to bring about the nationalisation of the “top 150 companies and banks”. Communists must aim for the total transformation of society, and that necessarily includes the total transformation of relations between people.
We flatly reject the ‘meritocracy’, with its supposedly natural order of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, etc – as lampooned in the famous 1967 sketch by John Cleese and the ‘two Ronnies’. We do not aspire to replace the heads of private companies and banks with appointees of the ‘socialist’ state. Red bosses. Nor do we look to the day when ‘the best’ really rise to the top, so that they can bark out the orders.
Yes, communists aim to narrow and then finally eradicate the stultifying, wasteful and truly unnatural division between mental and manual/physical work – a rift perpetuated by capitalism and its educational system, which is predicated on an almost Roman-like disdain for manual labour. Where, under communism, there is authority, that must be fully embodied in the control exercised by society itself. And when all govern none govern. Power will doubtless still exist. But no longer over people, rather over things – that is what today’s politics will dissolve into.
Naturally, our approach to education is part of our overall and wider vision, and struggle, for the democratisation of the world – of which an essential element is to demystify ‘expertise’ and so undermine the power and rule of the ‘expert’. We aim to do this not because communists have a philistine or Pol Potish hatred of all expertise, specialised knowledge or intell-ectuals – contrary to a popular pre-judice, assiduously nurtured by college/university syllabuses or BBC documentaries, we do not subscribe to the politics of envy – far from it. We aim to do it for the plain, simple reason that most of what calls itself ‘expertise’ is often no such thing. More a fetishisation of certain functions in our historically specific and conditioned class society.
In communist society there will still be the need for farmers, opera conductors, project engineers, brain surgeons and film directors. But no longer will those who perform those functions be materially privileged or act like petty dictators. Indeed all socially necessary work will be minimised and doubtless allocated on a rotational basis, so no-one has to endlesly perform the same repetitive task – going half-mad in the process.
As a result there will no longer be opera conductors, project engineers, brain surgeons and film directors as such. Instead there will be the kind of person who in the morning looks after the pigs in one of the city farms, who in the afternoon studies the latest music score and who in the evening helps out in the local hospital.