Paul Barker: The Masters of the Universe are back. But for how long?

The City lads are toasting their bonuses, an Etonian is a whisker away from No 10 but the dream of a meritocracy lives on

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How do you measure merit? The City of London is in no doubt. You measure it in bonuses. Some traders have been muttering about slaving away over their computers till 3 o'clock in the morning. But think of the cash. It drips like Golden Syrup from their fingers. Year-end bonuses of up to £3m have been doled out.

This is just pocket money, they'll all argue, compared to the $53.4m bonus just paid to Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of the investment bank Goldman Sachs. But what has anyone done to deserve such pay-outs? We live in an increasingly meritocratic society, according to a new sociological study. But is this what meritocracy means? It turns out that Tom Wolfe's "Masters of the Universe" - as chronicled in his novel of the grasping 1980s, The Bonfire of the Vanities - did not die out, like the dinosaurs. They just hibernated for a bit. They're back - along with an Eton-educated Tory leader who's within a whisker of becoming prime minister. But this time the masters are stomping more discreetly. Not so much the flash car or the flash holiday. More a question of: which house can I put my money in? Nationwide and Halifax/Bank of Scotland report that London house prices could rise by 8 per cent in 2007, for the second year running - "driven by record levels of City bonuses". The North-South gap widens.

The beauty of it, for the recipients, is you gain whichever way the economy is going. As it goes up, like now, you rake in percentages from takeovers. As it goes down, you rake in almost as much from corporate restructuring and litigation.

That great analyst of how cities function, Jane Jacobs (who died this year), pointed out that, thanks to profits from financial manipulation, capital cities can flourish for many years - though not for ever - while the country they preside over gradually decays. This may be the way Britain is going.

But where would this leave other, non-financial measures of merit? As a new year opens, we are at the cusp of the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. The balls on the pin table are falling into different slots. All but one. Both men still trumpet their devotion to the gospel of meritocracy: equal opportunities for all, delivered through education. It looks like being a milestone year for meritocracy.

In his pre-Budget report this month, Brown said education was the priority "now and into the future". He sees it as the high road out of poverty. Blair restated his own credo in November. He announced plans to drive the number of the contentious, but mostly popular, city academies up to 400 (from 46): "Educate a child well," he said, "and you give them a chance. Educate them badly and they may never get a chance in the whole of their lives." The phrases were probably written by Andrew (Lord) Adonis, Blair's de facto education secretary, who was brought up by his father in a North London council flat, after his mother left home. Adonis hasn't slipped into the all-too-frequent stance of wishing to pull up the ladder by which he himself rose.

This week a wide-ranging sociological study of meritocracy is published: The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy, edited by Geoff Dench (Blackwell, £13.75). As it makes clear, a huge expansion in middle-class jobs has fuelled enormous social mobility; with the blue-collar working class sliding into a minority of the population,at about 40 per cent. You need no other explanation for New Labour's wild pursuit of Middle England. So far, there's been little downward mobility (though upward mobility has slowed). No clogs to clogs in three generations. More: what we have we hold.

Public schools have responded cleverly. Instead of turning out people who win sports trophies (like the Ashes?), they turn out good A-levels. Oxford and Cambridge made their selection processes ever more meritocratic. They then found, paradoxically, that this pulled in more privately educated children, often the sons and daughters of first-generation middle-class parents.

Many of the contributors to the new study worry that advancement by merit does not solve every social problem. What about those who do not make it? Those who continue to truant? Those on whom Asbos rain down, often to little avail? Such anxieties tread in the footsteps of the great sociologist and educationist Michael Young. He invented the word "meritocracy" in his 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy. It's one of those dystopias the British specialise in, like Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's 1984. Young defined merit as intelligence (as authenticated by test or exam success) plus effort. But he didn't see meritocracy as an earthly paradise. More a technocratic nightmare which would lead, sometime in the mid-21st century, to a revolt of the unjustly oppressed.

Not yet, though. That unregarded 40 per cent are only just starting to show their dissatisfaction, especially with a government which says they must forever compete, meritocratically, with immigrants. And there are other ill omens. In her chapter in the new study, the novelist and journalist Yvonne Roberts speaks movingly, and apprehensively, about the distorted quest for "respect" among some young black men. The kind of people who drove out from South London to Reading to rape, torture and stab to death young Mary-Ann Leneghan. The culture of gangs. The bling-bling meritocracy. But this is no harbinger of revolution any more than the similar villainies, carried out by the American rapster role models in Los Angeles or the Bronx, will pull down the political and economic structures of the US.

It's true, obviously, that meritocracy cannot wave a magic wand. It does not erase envy (as witness most media comment on those City bonuses). Years ago, the American sociologist Robert Merton found that dissatisfaction among US troops was higher in regiments where promotion was more open to the talented. If a private soldier was in a regiment where he knew he had little hope of advancement, he was happier. In a fairer system, failure is harder to bear.

For all its shortcomings, a meritocracy is, in fact, fairer. The new study reminds us that in Britain the first step was the 19th-century introduction of Civil Service entry exams. The novelist and former civil servant Anthony Trollope regretted the erosion of personal (that is, nepotistic) networks, just as Sir Peregrine Worsthorne regrets the disappearance of what he calls "the old Whiggish governing order". But the process edged on, up to and including the 11-plus, which liberated many working-class pupils. It suffered a setback, in the name of equality, when comprehensives were imposed almost everywhere. But specialist schools and city academies are redressing the balance. It seems to be what most people want.

Peter Wilby, former editor of this newspaper and of the New Statesman, and a long-time education correspondent, reports that many ministers, off the record, wish they could bring back grammar schools. But meritocracy is being reinvented by other means. Professor Peter Saunders, who has carried out much research into social mobility, is that rare beast, an optimistic sociologist. He notes, in the new book, that meritocracy "resonates powerfully with deeply held ethical values about fairness". Winston Churchill once told the House of Commons, "democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". Much the same seems to be true of meritocracy.

Nor is there just a single ladder. Every time Mr and Mrs Blair holiday in a Cliff Richard or Bee Gee mansion, they pay homage to what study editor Geoff Dench calls an "alternative, people's meritocracy" of rock, soccer and film.

In the US or France, the merits of meritocracy are seen as self-evident. But in Britain, the question of class always rears its ugly head. In 1911, 1 per cent of the population held 70 per cent of the nation's wealth. Under Thatcher, in the late 1980s, this concentration of money and power fell to about 18 per cent. Now, thanks partly to the City, it has drifted up to about 23 per cent. But there is still such a thing as "old money". Would Mr and Mrs Blair attract less flak if they spent their holidays with multi-acred landowners like the Dukes of Westminster or Northumberland?

In his 1950s satire, Michael Young thought the future revolt would be led by women, as leaders of the disadvantaged. At the time, the supposedly fair marking of the 11-plus was deliberately skewed against girls, to make sure they didn't swamp the boys in grammar schools. (It's not certain whether Young knew this then.) The glass ceiling hasn't vanished, but women are fracturing it - meritocratically. There are now more women students than men in higher education in Britain. In this week's study, the Tory spokesman on education, David Willetts, argues that women have become "a driver of social trends". His meritocratic conclusion: "Feminism has trumped socialism." Not in the City, of course, as witness the innumerable cases of prejudice against women which end up in the tribunals and the courts. Today, the biggest bonuses all lie in male hands. Just wait. It may take a crash to precipitate the ultimate change. But the women are coming. Even here, the odds are that a truer meritocracy will rule.

Paul Barker is a senior research fellow at the Young Foundation

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