Toby Young is Michael Young’s son. Fifty years ago, Michael Young wrote the groundbreaking book, “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Today, Toby examines the popularity of his father’s book and how the very idea of a “meritocracy” — a term his father coined — to condemn the British elite, has now been replaced with the “celebritariat.”
Michael disapproved of meritocracy because he saw it as a way of legitimising inequality. After all, if everyone starts out on a level playing field, then the resulting allocation of rewards–however unequal–seems fair. Those at the very pinnacle of our society might not inherit their privileged position, as their forebears had done, but its pyramid-like shape would be preserved. Indeed, once this hierarchical structure became legitimised, as it would in a meritocratic society, it was likely that power and wealth would become concentrated in even fewer hands.
Just how prescient was The Rise of the Meritocracy? Equality of opportunity has become every bit as entrenched as my father thought it would, but that hasn’t had a corresponding impact on the composition of Britain’s elites. Much of today’s ruling class is still drawn from a narrow band of schools and universities and while those institutions accept only the “brightest” applicants they have not had to compete with the rest of the population on a level playing field. They have not earned their place at the top on merit alone which, for the purposes of his book, my father defined as IQ + effort.
Toby continues to argue that the meritocracy in the UK is dead — and it has been replaced with the idea of the celebrity as the ruler of hearts and minds — and that change was encouraged by the ordinary masses because regular people can more closely relate with celebrities than they can with old century money and power.
As Ferdinand Mount notes in Mind the Gap: “The old class markers have become taboo… The manners of classlessness have become de rigueur.” To put it another way: a profound increase in economic inequality has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in social and cultural equality. We can see this most clearly in changing attitudes to popular culture. It is a cliché to point out that the distinction between high and low culture has all but disappeared in the past 25 years or so.
In this free-for-all it is high culture that has been the loser, with most educated people under 45 embracing popular culture almost exclusively. As a student in the mid-80s, I was proud to call myself an “Oxbridge Gooner”–one of several dozen students at Oxford and Cambridge who regularly attended Arsenal games–and such groupings are commonplace now. The rich and the poor no longer live in two nations, at least not socially. Economic divisions may be more pronounced than ever, but we support the same football teams, watch the same television programmes, go to the same movies. Mass culture is for everyone, not just the masses.
Yet if Britain is no longer a deferential nation–if its citizens don’t accept that their place in life should be dictated by their class status–why is egalitarianism still the dog that hasn’t barked in British politics since 1979? Could it be that partly because of the power and ubiquity of popular culture, Britain is now perceived to be far more meritocratic than it actually is? This phenomenon has been widely documented in America, where belief in the meritocratic American dream persists with low social mobility.
If this is the case, I believe it is largely due to the emergence of a new class that my father didn’t anticipate and which, for want of a better word, I shall call the “celebritariat.” I am thinking of the people featured in Heat magazine, rather than Hello!–the premier league footballers and their wives, pop stars, movie stars, soap stars and the like. For all its shortcomings, the celebrity class is broadly meritocratic and because it is so visible it may help to persuade people that Britain is a fairer place than it really is.
Is celebrity the new religion?
Do we all now seek comfort in our stars than in the stars?
Is the want for, and adoration of, fame the new narcotic used by the majority power to keep the ordinary hopeful and upward looking and in place?