In praise of meritocracy
Grammar schools, Tony Crosland and the Encounter club
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Has there ever been a magazine quite as meritocratic as Encounter? To write for this Anglo-American monthly, which flourished from the 1950s to the 1980s, the sole criterion was to be a first-class writer or thinker on either side of the Atlantic, and to be anything but a card-carrying communist — the magazine’s reputation never entirely recovered from the 1967 revelation that it was secretly funded by the CIA. Nevertheless, to be commissioned to write for Encounter was a true accolade: it meant being elected to the most exclusive club in the English-speaking intelligentsia.
Take an issue more or less at random: July 1961. The political spectrum extends from the reactionary high Toryism of T.S. Eliot to the fashionable leftism of Mary McCarthy, from Malcolm Muggeridge’s irreverent take on the monarchy to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s takedown of his rival A.J.P. Taylor’s history of the Second World War. The writing throughout is erudite yet urbane; the editing excellent; the readership presumed to be interested in everything from the Cuba of Castro to the France of Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Also in this July 1961 issue is an essay by C.A.R. Crosland: “Some Thoughts on English Education”. Anthony (“Tony”) Crosland was the brightest of the best cabinet of the postwar era — on paper, at any rate. At least two other ministers in the first Wilson cabinet were members of the Encounter club: Roy Jenkins and R.H.S. Crossman. Only Crosland, though, could claim to be the Labour Party ideologue. As the author of The Future of Socialism (1956), he had provided the blueprint for a modern social democracy: non-revolutionary (at least in the Marxist sense) but radically reformist.
The ideas contained in that highly influential book had already been road-tested with an essay series for Encounter. In 1955, Crosland had yet to focus on education as the key to a more egalitarian Britain, but he already looked askance at the newly fashionable slogan of “equality of opportunity”. Like Michael Young, who had coined the term “meritocracy” to define the new inequality that was rapidly replacing older forms, Crosland believed that there was “a certain injustice” in singling out intelligence for privileged treatment.
He also feared the middle and upper classes would quickly exploit meritocracy to entrench their privileges. “Clever working-class children are still denied access to the public schools, while the less clever but still potentially useful have only a rather uncertain access to the grammar schools … inherited property, nepotism, and class favouritism all prevent a fair and effective competition, on merit alone, for the highest posts.” Note that the privately-educated Crosland takes it for granted that fee-paying public schools are superior to grammar schools.
By 1961, his ideas about education had advanced further; once again, he turned to Encounter to outline the theory he would soon put into practice. By now he had been persuaded to adopt a new interpretation of equality of opportunity. On its “weak” interpretation, all children of equal intelligence at 11 and 18 did not enjoy equal prospects.
Under the influence of sociologists such as A.H. Halsey, he no longer accepted that IQ was innate and fixed: “Intelligence is acquired by teaching, stimulation and encouragement.” Crosland now preferred a “strong” interpretation of equality of opportunity: “Its realisation would entail an immensely high standard of universal provision.”
He rejected as “reactionary” the notion of “a narrow ladder up which only a few exceptional individuals, hauled out of their class by society’s talent scouts, can ever climb”
This meant he rejected as “reactionary” the notion of “a narrow ladder up which only a few exceptional individuals, hauled out of their class by society’s talent scouts, can ever climb”. He was right to point out the disparity between Britain, where just 5 per cent then went on to higher education, and the US, where 25 per cent did. But he was disastrously mistaken to argue that “the need is not for more public-school-type education for the top two or three per cent of the population … we need less concentration on an educational elite and more on the average standard of attainment.”
Crosland rejects the abolition of private education out of hand (“politically out of the question”) and instead plumps for a “simple, inexpensive and fair” plan advocated by the economist John Vaizey (one of several leading left-wing intellectuals who later switched parties and supported Margaret Thatcher. Vaizey advocated the nationalisation, under an educational trust, of the schools belonging to the Headmasters’ Conference. Places in these genuinely “public” schools would then be apportioned to all secondary schools, state and private, on the same basis as food rationing. Tuition would be subsidised, boarding fees means-tested. He was, however, ominously silent on the future of the grammar schools. They had no place in Labour’s utopia.
It never happened, of course — for the same “political” reasons that prevented abolition. Crosland rationalised this reluctance to “grasp the nettle of selection in the public schools” by deciding against challenging their monopoly on elite education. In a later book, The Conservative Enemy, he warned that to do so would mean “Dr Young’s dreaded ‘meritocrats’ would finally have their fingers at our throats”.
So the public schools survived: more academically selective but as socially exclusive as ever. Instead, it was the grammar schools — the true bastions of meritocracy — that would be abolished by Labour and Conservative governments between 1964 and 1979. By then, 90 per cent of children were in areas with comprehensive schools.
The whole sorry story is told with elegance and erudition by Peter Mandler in The Crisis of the Meritocracy. But it was Crosland who took the decisive step towards comprehensive education and away from meritocracy. Notoriously, he told his wife Susan: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.”
As a small boy of about eight or nine, I had the terrifying experience of the wrath of the then Secretary of State for Education at a party given by my parents. l had been allowed to stay up in my dressing gown to greet the guests and offer them a glass of wine. Crosland was one of the first to arrive. He looked at me severely and, in a stentorian voice, issued his order: “Bring me a large Scotch on the rocks.” An excruciating pause followed.
“Excuse me, Sir, but I don’t know what that is,” I stammered. “Then you’d better go and ask your parents, boy.” The last line was delivered in a withering drawl that felt more like a snarl. I fled. Sent back with the amber-filled glass, l received no thanks, merely a glower. Perhaps that was how he had been treated at his prep school.
I remembered this frosty encounter years later when my headmaster, Mr Day, upbraided me for having parents who publicly advocated the abolition of grammar schools, while educating their children at one. “I suppose your father is a friend of Anthony Crosland, too?” he asked. I nodded. “What has he got against a school like ours?” There was no good answer. Somehow, the school survives to this day.
The destruction of the grammar schools was a by-product of the democratic consensus
How did all this happen so easily? The voters were gulled by Harold Wilson’s slogan of “grammar schools for all” and the new all-ability schools were popular with most parents, many of whom saw the 11-plus examination as unfair and divisive.
The destruction of the grammar schools was a by-product of the democratic consensus. A 1967 survey by the magazine New Society summed it up: three quarters of those who lived in selective areas were against the abolition of grammar schools, but only half supported the 11-plus. There were consistent majorities in favour of the comprehensive principle, yet all too often, comprehensive schools failed their ablest pupils. This was Labour’s greatest betrayal of the ambitions of its supporters. But it was an unexpected blessing for those whose parents could afford a private education. The challenge of meritocracy was postponed for a generation.
Now, however, it is back. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, an assault on meritocracy has erupted, blaming it for a variety of evils that are, strictly speaking, only epiphenomena.
The philosopher Michael Sandel, well-known in Britain and America for his communitarian critique of the free market, has led the charge with his book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Sandel sees meritocracy as incompatible with ideas of social justice and fairness. Yet much of his slim volume is devoted to such peculiarly American caricatures of meritocracy as “success ethics” (preached by fringe evangelicals who interpret wealth as a sign of divine favour) and “credentialism” (the pursuit of academic qualifications to the exclusion of all other measures of merit).
Like Crosland, however, he tries to debunk equality of opportunity as no more than “a remedial principle, not an adequate ideal for a good society”. Sandel argues that meritocracy must not focus solely on upward mobility, but also accommodate other common goods: democracy, solidarity, humility. It is unclear, however, why this distinguished philosopher adopts such a narrow definition of merit as to exclude these desiderata.
Another critique comes from another transatlantic public intellectual, David Goodhart. His book Head, Hand, Heart differs from Sandel in that it does not question the meritocratic principle. Instead, he demonstrates that intellectual abilities are not the only ones that count. Skilled manual work and compassion are also valuable — especially to an ageing society. Goodhart is persuasive, but his argument is for diversifying, not invalidating, merit as an organising principle.
Now Bagehot has come to the defence of meritocracy. The anonymous author of the Economist’s political column is a Prize Fellow of All Souls, with an Oxford doctorate in philosophy and many books written with John Micklethwaite, the paper’s former editor. Adrian Wooldridge is, in short, the meritocrat’s meritocrat. The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (Allen Lane, £25) is an omniscient and impassioned polemic.
Some of us have been waiting a long time for someone to do what Wooldridge has done: nail the lie that there is something shameful about success honestly earned
Wooldridge tells us the pre-history and history of meritocracy, how it rose and why it is in crisis. He shows how little has changed since Milton wrote (in the sonnet “On His Blindness”) of “that one Talent which is death to hide”. We still feel the moral imperative to make the most of our gifts, to strive in fair competition to fulfil our potential, and to break down barriers to the billions of people who still lack the opportunity to do likewise.
Some of us have been waiting a long time for someone to do what Wooldridge has done: nail the lie that there is something shameful about success honestly earned. Meritocracy has been discredited by unscrupulous “cognitive elites” who seek to entrench their advantages. If his aristocracy of talent abandons equality of opportunity in favour of hierarchies of victimhood, it loses the moral high ground — and its raison d’être. The remoralisation of meritocracy is a worthy cause.
The alternative is decay. Wooldridge concludes with another parable: the rise and fall of Venice. In its heyday, it was unusual among mercantile city states in being open to new talent. It was innovative, too: the commenda pioneered the joint-stock company. Then, in 1315, rich families rigged the system with the Libro d’Oro, a “golden book” listing the nobility and excluding others. This “closure” — La Serrata — proved fatal to La Serenissima. Wooldridge warns that the West risks repeating the Venetian mistake and ceding our global leadership role to China. He is surely correct.
Hence when, after yet another victorious election last month, Boris Johnson let it be known that he was eyeing ten more years in power, it was striking that there was talk of creating a new culture of opportunity to “level up” the North and the Midlands. The Tories’ language is meritocratic, but where are the policies to enable these newly empowered regions to lift themselves up by their bootstraps?
Retraining for those who never went to university is all very well, but how about making room at the top for bright kids from the bottom of society? Britain is open for business again after the pandemic, but how will we ensure that the Boris boom does not merely enrich an existing Establishment, but injects some new blood into a more authentic “aristocracy of talent”?
When Venice declined, so did the Mediterranean, while Atlantic ports such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, Lisbon and London prospered. If we want that meritocratic spirit to thrive again, we need to give Eton & co serious competition. Grammar schools, Prime Minister — we need to reinvent them.
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