Paul Barker: A meritocracy? What an awfully 20th-century idea

An Old Etonian is to marry an Old Marlburian. Our writer asks if social mobility has seized up

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It's near enough a fairy tale. Almost every newspaper fell with delight upon the story of the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. It was such a big improvement on trying to make sense of what was, or was not, happening to the world economy. Even The Guardian's allotted columnist, Jonathan Freedland, felt obliged to end his rather curmudgeonly commentary with "even the most hard-bitten republican will be wishing them well".

The best joke was on Freedland. He mourned that all this would "inaugurate an unending press obsession, with Middleton's face surely bound for the cover of Hello! and OK!". He had clearly not checked with his news editor at The Guardian. The paper's own front page splashed the happy couple's picture across four columns.

Let the glamour commence. No one ever considered holding the ceremony at the Windsor register office, as Charles and Camilla did. But before the razzmatazz cranks up, we should note that this latest royal news confirms what a strange year 2010 has been, both socially and historically.

After her long wait, Kate landed her prince. After his long negotiations, David Cameron landed his prime ministership. Prince and Prime Minister are Old Etonians. A few decades ago – let's say in 1981, the date of Prince William's mother's wedding – would anyone have predicted Eton to be back on top?

The 1980s were the Thatcher years, reigned over by Britain's most triumphantly meritocratic prime minister, proud of her climb from grocer's shop to Downing Street. She only needed to see a vested interest to seek to demolish it with her handbag. Notoriously, the barbed comment from one of her predecessors, Harold Macmillan (with scarcely concealed anti-semitism), was that there were "more Estonians than Etonians" in Mrs Thatcher's government. This was not a complaint anyone ever made about Macmillan's own cabinets during his six years in office (1957-63). For the Old Etonian Macmillan, later promoted to the earldom of Stockton, the year 2010 would have seemed a merry time. Happy days, Eton days.

But does this mean that 2010 is the end of the road for meritocracy? The quest for an answer is partly sociological, partly political.

The Daily Telegraph published one of the more entertaining pieces about the intended wedding. Toby Young gave the new parents-in-law, Charles and Camilla, hints on how to behave at a middle-class dinner party ("bring a bottle of wine"). But Toby Young's father was the renowned sociologist Michael Young. I doubt if he would have been amused by young Toby's class-ridden article.

In a classic book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, back in 1958, Young père invented a new word. As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, "meritocracy" is the only concept by a British sociologist to enter the English language since Darwin's camp-follower, Herbert Spencer, back in the 19th century, thought of the phrase "survival of the fittest".

Young didn't welcome the prospect of an all-powerful meritocracy. He feared it would leave behind a disaffected, leaderless working class. He hoped for a revolt against the triumphant meritocrats. He never reckoned that Eton would help to man the barricades.

Could any sociologist have invented an apter surname for the bride-to-be than "Middleton", with its undertones of Middle England and middle class? Till now, meritocracy has, in practice, surged ahead. Kate's parents, Michael and Carole, are entrepreneurial examples. Politically, the marker was Tony Blair's invention of New (ie Middle Class) Labour.

Blair said that his essential slogan was : "Education, education, education." But for many, the slogan remained a slogan. One recent estimate is that one third of children leave primary school struggling to read and write. (I wonder why something very simple can't be done about this. For example: dock £1,000 per child off the headteacher's salary.)

Meritocracy powered ahead, regardless. As so often, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown followed in Thatcher's footsteps. Both of them explicitly favoured meritocracy. Brown himself was a prime example of that Scottish social cliché "the lad o' pairts", the young man from a modest background whose brainpower would open the door to worldly success.

The middle class swelled and swelled. Twenty years after the event, Blair had twigged that during the 1970s the blue-collar working class ceased to be a majority of the electorate. Since then, even the unions have gone middle class. Recent strikes at British Airways have been undertaken by staff whose pay and perks most other workers can only envy. They are scarcely the horny-handed sons – and daughters – of toil hymned in Labour mythology.

The evidence of the change is all around us. Probably, a generation back, neither Kate Middleton nor Prince William would have felt the need to become graduates. St Andrews, where they met, is an ancient foundation. But some of the newest universities offer an educational gruel as thin as that fed to students at America's community colleges.

The upshot, as in the United States, is that an ever increasing proportion of the population will hold some kind of degree. Partly because of this, most Americans now think of themselves as "middle class". In Britain, a sizeable segment still think of themselves as "working class", because their fathers, or even grandfathers, were working class. But this curious nostalgia is fast fading.

The physical evidence of meritocracy is all around the commuter-land fringes of every town and city in Britain. In Berkshire, where Kate Middleton and David Cameron grew up, estates of "executive homes" have spread like Japanese knotweed. They are sneered at by those who can afford a bit more, just as the interwar pebbledash semis were sneered at. That's how Britain is. Class obsesses the British, and especially the English, in the same way that race obsesses Americans.

Within cities, the physical evidence of the new Britain is different. Professionals have colonised more and more of the inner city. In London, who ever expected Hackney might become a smart address? West Ham next? Michael Young wasn't wrong to fear disaffection among the losers. The greatest government scandal of the past 20 years has been the failure to build enough modest, affordable houses. The meritocratic middle class have been quick to pull up the ladder behind them. Eco arguments have become window dressing for "not in my back yard". Nimbyism by another name.

What we have we hold. This is the eternal cry of people who feel themselves under threat. The new middle classes have two main bugbears to defend themselves against. One is economic: almost all white-collar workers face pay cuts. Among blue-collar workers, such cuts have been a fact of life, though boom and bust, for at least 10 years. The second is biological. How can we ensure our children cling to the rung on the ladder we have reached? Can we help them do even better? Should we be thinking about private education, as Michael and Carole Middleton did? Could our daughter even marry a prince?

You can only conclude that this really is the end of the line for British meritocracy. Hard times, it appears, bring with them a desire to cling to old symbols. Vivat Eton. Vivat the House of Windsor. Ring out the bells? Or muffle them?

Paul Barker is a senior research fellow at the Young Foundation and author of 'The Freedoms of Suburbia'

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