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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 12:23 GMT
The rise of the meritocracy
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Mowing the lawn at Buckingham Palace
Which side are you on?
In the fallout over Charles' controversial memo on ambition and opportunity, onlookers have debated just how meritocratic British society really is. Unfortunately, they can't even agree on a definition of the word.

It's been billed as the battle of aristocracy versus meritocracy; nobility against social mobility; the privileged as opposed to the talented.

Prince Charles' opinions on "the learning culture in schools", perceived by some to be an outdated defence of the class system, provoked a backlash in many corners.

The prince's supporters hit back, citing Charles' work for his Prince's Trust charity, which seeks to widen opportunity for young people. In uncharacteristically reactive mood, Charles himself publicly waded into the controversy - clarifying his thoughts in a speech on Monday night.

"In my view, it is just as great an achievement to be a plumber or a bricklayer as it is to be a lawyer or a doctor," said the prince.

Yet the passions excited on both sides are a telling reminder that even in 21st Century Britain one only has to scratch the veneer of a "fair society" to expose the seething prejudices and conflicting beliefs underneath. These days, the question is not do we want to live in a fair society, but what definition of fairness should we be aiming for.

It was not always thus. The historic English class system is known the world over for its rigid social stratification - the idea of knowing one's station, and not rising above it, which Prince Charles vehemently distanced himself from in his recent retort.

Factory workers in the 1940s
Onwards and upwards: Factory workers in the 1940s
The seeds of equality were sown as early as the 18th Century by the likes of liberals such as Adam Smith. A century later they took root in a philosophy known as "liberal equality" or the "career open to the talents".

Victorian free-marketeers believed efficient markets were stultified by the old order as jobs and wealth were passed down through families, rather than being open to ambitious individuals.

Nicholas Abercrombie, co-author of the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, sees the 1870 Education Act, which introduced state funded schooling, as a key step in the drive towards greater social mobility. Beforehand, education was largely private; a preserve of the wealthy.

Sociologist Laurie Taylor puts his marker down at roughly the same time, noting the introduction of competitive exams for jobs in the civil service as a milestone on the road to meritocracy in Britain.

"The civil service exams are the turning point. But the papers were very classical, very Oxbridge orientated," notes Mr Taylor.

Lip service

And, in a sense, this is where the issue has stalled. When Michael Young, later the Labour peer Lord Young, coined the term "meritocracy" in the title of his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, he meant it as a negative term.

MERITOCRACY - 2 MEANINGS
Definition
In its pure sense, and one which most closely mirrors Tory Party thinking, the word refers to merit as assessed by the competitive education system
In a looser sense, which better reflects Labour attitudes, it refers to a society were individuals are judged on a far wider range of abilities
For him, the education system of the time, which divided children on ability between grammar schools and lower-grade secondary moderns, was a convenient smokescreen. To Michael Young a meritocratic society paid lip service to equality, but in practice kept poor children down, by relegating most of them to second-class schools.

Ironic then that while Prince Charles' recent comments were widely portrayed in the media as anti-meritocratic, the late Lord Young's son, journalist Toby Young, sees his words as a vindication of that very doctrine.

"My father certainly would have been opposed to what Prince Charles was advocating and probably would have described it as meritocratic," says Toby Young.

It was Lord Young's ideas that inspired the shake up of secondary education in the 1960s, leading to the rise of comprehensive schools - where children of all abilities and backgrounds are brought together under one roof.

Yet while the political argument about meritocracy remains deadlocked - Tories and Labour both subscribing to the word, but with crucial differences in how they define it - social mobility, the product of meritocracy, surged forward during Prince Charles' lifetime.

The post war boom in so-called professional managerial jobs has propelled millions from working class origins to middle class aspirations.

Bowler-hatted workers
The workplace has changed unrecognisably in recent years
Yet, to Laurie Taylor, the glory days of meritocracy could be on the wane as new forms of work shun the traditional qualifications found in professions such as law and medicine.

"When there were distinctive sets of occupation in which people would take exams and rise though the system, a meritocracy was much clearer," he says.

"The growth in jobs such as PR, advertising and consultancy have gone back to the nepotic world where it's all about who you know, not what you know. Networking has come to be an extremely important way of securing admission."

But for those who tried and failed in a world where all things are equal, the shift to an anti-meritocratic world has its advantages, says Taylor.

"The hideous thing about meritocracy is it tells you that if you've given life your all and haven't got to the top you're thick or stupid. Previously, at least, you could always just blame the class system."


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