May this spat mark the death-throes of privilege

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WILLIAM HAGUE is leader of the Tory party on the basis of a large amount of ability and a little luck, the two attributes a true meritocrat needs to thrive. Lord Cranborne became the party's leader in the House of Lords because he has a lineage that goes back to the court of Elizabeth I and, it turns out, the genetically transmitted back-stabbing skills to prove it. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr Hague has made a pig's ear of his dealings with the hereditary peers. He was certainly naive and committed the most fundamental of political errors - over-estimating the strength of your hand - to the ultimate advantage of the Government.

But when it comes to the significance of last week's events for those of us who happen to be neither peers of the realm nor Labour spin-doctors, my sympathies and wishes for a speedy recovery are entirely with Mr Hague. He has suffered what I hope will be the last significant defeat in Britain of the meritocratic principle by the forces of institutionalised privilege.

Meritocracy is one of the most fecund of Enlightenment ideals and one unjustly neglected by both the left and the right in the latter part of the century. Conservatism has always defended vested interests and preserved the privileges of a self-selecting elite.

Hague went to a comprehensive school, but all the focus groups show that the voters stubbornly believe that he is the product of private education. As so often, the public's gut instinct is somehow right when it makes a factually wrong assumption. The Tory party keeps producing self-made leaders - the last one left school at 16 and the one before was a grammar school girl. But it has never wholly accepted the idea of just deserts, because it threatens the continuities and sense of a settled order which many natural conservatives prize more than social progress.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, started the 20th century imbued with the Whig ideals of offering the chance of advancement to the poor and ensuring that jobs and offices went to the deserving rather than the well-connected. After 1945, it allowed the collapse of meritocracy into egalitarianism.

New Labour still cannot entirely shake off the habit. On the one hand, it embraces Tony Blair's belief that "what's right is what works" and has duly introduced performance-related pay for teachers, in order to provide a material incentive for them to produce better results. On the other hand, David Blunkett's attack on grammar schools - whose future is to be decided not by balloting the parents of the pupils, but by extending the vote to parents from neighbouring schools who are often dissatisfied with the standards outside the grammar - reinforces the notion that the reason some schools do well is because others do badly. It is straight out of the Marxist thinking for beginners manual, which announces that some people are poor because others are rich. A government that had fully absorbed the importance of rewarding excellence would never seek to damage institutions which work well in the vague hope that this would somehow make flawed ones better.

Genuine meritocracy not only allows the deserving to prosper without hindrance. It also encourages everyone to make the best of their talents by ensuring that advancement is accessible to the greatest possible number of people; and creates a system flexible enough to recognise potential and not simply reward the offspring of good homes, who start out with advantages.

It is not an easy thing to achieve. The world is full of Lord Cranbornes, grand and petty, who cling tenaciously to privileges by waging subtle and unseen wars against the notion that rewards belong to the deserving, not the beneficiaries of patronage, tradition or special pleading.

As Adrian Wooldridge pointed out in a Social Market Foundation pamphlet, Meritocracy and the Classless Society (1995), it also requires a commitment to redistribution of opportunity, rather than wealth. "The outcome of a competitive education system can hardly be regarded as just if some competitors start off far behind others and weighed down with balls and chains," he wrote.

New Labour has a more urgent sense than the Conservatives that too many people's talents go unrecognised, untutored and unrewarded in Britain. But trapped between its traditional egalitarianism and a nervous and defensive meritocratic instinct, it may end up wasting its real potential to be a great reforming force. Of course, it would be marvellous if the welfare- to-work programmes and enlightened goodwill alone would end poverty. But let's get real. A lot of children will still be born into homes where ignorance and low expectations surround them. School is the place that gives children a route out of these limitations.

Yet without introducing a range of schools to cater to the differing abilities of different children, the task is futile. It took the great egalitarian Halsey to conclude, in his 1972 report Educational Priority, "The essential fact of 20th-century educational history is that egalitarian policies have failed". Twenty-six years on, the centre-left is only just beginning to face up to the truth of this admission, let alone think of ways to move on.

One of the great arguments in the egalitarians' armoury is that, however inadequate things may be now, it would be worse to go back to the divisions of the past. It is an odd assumption, unique to the education debate, that the only alternatives are a return to the model of 1950s Britain or a continuation of the present settlement, in which the prosperous flee to the private sector and for the rest, selection by house price replaces selection by ability.

The old 11-plus tested a certain kind of intelligence. It failed to reflect the abilities of a wide range of young people and created educational facilities for the left-overs so inadequate that AJP Taylor counselled the young to "run away to sea rather than attend a secondary modern".

There is no earthly reason why we should make the same mistake again. We know now what we neglected then - that a real opportunity society does not exist only, in Thomas Jefferson's scornful phrase, "to rake a few geniuses up from the rubbish", but to make it worth the while of people in every ability range to become the best they can. It isn't a cheap goal. But the alternatives are more costly to all of us than mere money can count. The saddest lives are the ones which were never lived. How many times have you heard it said of someone; "They could have been a doctor/ artist/footballer/actress if only they'd had the chance." It isn't always true, of course. But far too often, it is.