But is the triumph of meritocracy as entrenched as it seems? Arguably, a rebellion is under way. When young men riot in obscure districts of Leeds, Luton, Cardiff or Tyneside, aren't those who lose out kicking against the meritocratic system that excludes them?
The idea of a "meritocracy" was invented by the maverick sociologist and campaigner Michael Young, who this week celebrates a vigorous 80th birthday. He launched his brand-new word in 1958 in a far-reaching, much reprinted satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. How well have his prophesies panned out?
One of the first reviewers was the cultural critic Raymond Williams, a Welsh miner's son from Abergavenny grammar school and author of Culture and Society. He wrote, sourly: "I see no evidence, in contemporary England, of power being more closely connected with merit, in any definition. The administrators, professional men and technicians are increasingly being selected on educational merit, but the power is still largely elsewhere, 'and no damned merit about it'."
The tide of history turned. The meritocrats took over at No 10 Downing Street - Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and, above all, Margaret Thatcher, the highest-flying meritocrat of our time. All were propelled by competitive exams from modest backgrounds to the top of the political tree. In the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock boasted that he was the first member of his family in a thousand years to go to university. Tony Blair went to public school, but he is ferociously proud of going there on a scholarship, not family cash.
John Major can't point to exam successes. The secretiveness of GCSE boards means that no one even knows what O-Levels he got. But in pursuit of votes, he plays for all it is worth the role of the boy from the Brixton slums, who climbed out by his own efforts.
Young's book is a futuristic morality tale, set in the Britain of the early 21st century. Patronage, family connections, all now count for nothing. Everyone is judged by formal assessments of brainpower (which largely means IQ). Society ought to work like clockwork. But it doesn't. The meritocratic system runs into two snags. One is the power of family ties. Parents don't want to see their dimmer children downgraded. They wangle good jobs. A new class system starts to emerge.
The other snag is the affront to human dignity. If you lose out because of a corrupt system, you can hold your head up and say, "I'm better than they are. One day, justice will be done." But if the system is so efficient that it can tell you, briskly, "You're at the bottom of the heap because you're not up to it," there's no escaping the psychological wound.
In Young's parable, the helots rise in rebellion against the new hierarchy. A radical "Chelsea Manifesto" is put together by an alliance of revolution- minded "shaggy young girls from Somerville" and "aged men" who still remember the old Labour Party's egalitarian ideals. The tale ends with a violent rally in Manchester. This is held, symbolically, at St Peter's Field where a Radical demonstration, better known as Peterloo, was put down by force in 1819.
The book was received with puzzlement when it came out. The 1944 Education Act was seen as Holy Writ. It had abolished fee-paying for grammar schools, and replaced it with the 11-plus. Bright working-class children poured into the reformed system. They were later helped to university, art college or Rada by new, generous grants. What could be wrong with that?
Young's point was that social inventions, like technological inventions, can turn and bite the inventor. His polemic was one of the intellectual propellants that led to the onslaught on grammar schools and the imposition of comprehensives. Harold Wilson's most forceful education secretary, Anthony Crosland, was a friend of Young's. His wife, Susan Crosland, has reported remarks he made which stand high on the list of educational infamy:
" 'If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England,' he said. 'And Wales. And Northern Ireland.'
" 'Why not Scotland?' I asked out of pure curiosity.
" 'Because their schools come under the Secretary of State for Scotland.' He began to laugh at his own inability to destroy their grammar schools."
But, before long, the power of the meritocratic idea won out over this attempt to thwart it. It is no accident that "meritocracy" is the only expression coined by a British sociologist that has entered common usage since Herbert Spencer invented the Darwinian phrase, "survival of the fittest" in the 1860s. (A similar concept, come to think of it.) People needed a new word for a new phenomenon.
Crosland and his successors left the public schools untouched. As Young predicted, in the teeth of contemporary scepticism, these schools started to concentrate on churning out good exam results instead of good chaps on the rugger field or the cricket pitch. Paradoxically, in the short run, the Oxbridge decision to rely on A-level results makes them even more likely to take in applicants from non-state schools.
The comprehensive experiment soured. It was never wise to impose it everywhere, regardless of local conditions. Flaws in neighbourhood schools in the United States - the model - had already emerged. If the neighbourhood was good, fine. If not, pupils were trapped in it. Parents did everything they could to escape - to a new neighbourhood or to a fee-paying alternative.
The reaction set in. The Thatcher government tried out city technology colleges, "magnet" schools, and eventually grant-maintained schools. To the horror of Labour Party activists, but to the quiet approval (I suspect) of most voters with children, Blair decided to send his son to a grant- maintained school next month. He said he couldn't let his children suffer from political dogma. Labour Party education policy, for so long dominated by the comprehensives obsession, was re-shaped. "The end is high achievement," Blair said in a recent speech. Equality of opportunity (that is, meritocracy), not equality of outcome (that is, egalitarianism), is the gospel according to New Labour.
So far so good for Michael Young's sociological crystal ball. Hospitals, schools and universities have found the meritocratic screw turned especially tight, with the publication of league tables which put them all in a highly visible pecking order. (This dovetails with Young's other preoccupation, consumer power. He founded the Consumers' Association just before he published The Rise of the Meritocracy.) But what about the promised rebellion? Meritocracy may bring many benefits but, as Young pointed out, it is certainly not cosy. Last year, in his contentious book The Bell Curve, the American sociologist Charles Murray, an admirer of Young's work, wrote of the risk that society was already becoming stratified by IQ.
In Britain there has, of course, been no shortage of riots. Urban disorder returned to English cities in a big way in the early 1980s. At first it was in strongly West Indian districts: Toxteth, Brixton, Tottenham. Then, in 1991, there were riots of a different sort, on the Ely estate, Cardiff, and the Meadow Well estate on Tyneside. These rioters were young unemployed whites. This summer has already seen one similar outbreak, on the Marsh Farm estate, Luton. On three hot July nights, the police confronted young men and boys, who set up barricades and started fires. A mixed-race version erupted inLeeds a few days later.
But these have so far been the unfocused protests of the underdog. The targets have usually been other local people, often shopkeepers, many of them Asian. There has been no political programme, no equivalent of Young's Chelsea Manifesto. Even the vendors of Socialist Worker's instant wisdom haven't known what to make of it all.
What Young's crystal ball didn't show was the drastic shrinkage of the British working class, and the decimation of classic blue-collar jobs. From being a majority of the workforce, blue-collar workers have become, since the mid-1970s, a minority. You can't have a revolution without the people.
The leadership of any revolt may lie elsewhere. Market economics and the "contract culture" have combined to make the career prospects of those who rise by their own merits more and more like a ride on a badly maintained Big Dipper. They look at their hard-earned diplomas and weep.
If such social uncertainty continues, then underdogs and disappointed meritocrats may combine. I must check where St Peter's Field is on my street map of Manchester.
This article is based on Paul Barker's chapter in 'Young at Eighty', to be published by Carcanet in October.Reuse content