Thursday, October 28

How the language of meritocracy has transformed British politics | Coronavirus

“WWe are meritocrats, ”stated Tony Blair in his 2001 Sedgefield candidate adoption speech. Almost two decades later, on December 13, 2019, Boris Johnson traveled from Westminster to Sedgefield as the newly elected Prime Minister. He was the first Conservative party leader to win the old mining town since 1931. In a victory speech in his predecessor’s old constituency, he declared that his aim was “to extend opportunities to all corners of the UK”.

Meritocracy, the idea that our system gives everyone an equal opportunity by giving what we can contribute, through our innate ability or hard work, has been a central part of the UK political consensus for decades. So it may seem strange that this simple way of thinking about fair reward and status distribution, something most of us agree on, is one of the key reasons why, in those two decades In between, Tony Blair’s old constituency turned blue.

A diverse group of authors, from the American political philosopher Michael Sandel to the British polemicist David Goodhart, have recently criticized meritocracy and its impact. Simply put, one of their key findings is that when people feel as though they have been bracketed in a lower social status, a status focused on educational attainment and cultural status, other than their job or how much money they have, that has an important psychological importance. effects. The belief in meritocracy among these low-status groups is related to low self-esteem and self-blame, Feelings of vulnerability and even, in a study, higher blood pressure.

TO new working document by social policy scholar Erzsébet Bukodi and sociologist John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College, Oxford, submit some of their claims to social scientific analysis. His search of the literature provides some fascinating finds. Not least, they find that the evidence is now clear from multiple studies: controlling for other factors, populist support is associated with the low social status of those who have failed the “test of worthiness.”

This has important electoral consequences, namely, increased support for authoritarian populism. We have seen the practical impact of this driver of populist politics, especially in the outcome of the 2016 referendum. In party politics, after Brexit, we have seen the emergence of new coalitions based on values ​​linked to status and education (the liberal-authoritarian divide, in the language of the social sciences) from values ​​linked to class ( the familiar left-right divide). And with important consequences. Socially authoritarian working-class voters in Sedgefield used to vote for Tony Blair. Now they vote for Boris Johnson.

The authors acknowledge that the evidence is less compelling when it comes to how a failure of the meritocracy leads to discontent over status. Bukodi and Goldthorpe are based on focus groups conducted by the interviewer and the author. Deborah Mattinson to postulate a possible link. This section of the public hears the language of meritocracy. They might even believe it in theory. However, they can see something different with their own eyes. The playing field had not been leveled. These focus groups provide ample evidence of anger at the lack of opportunity and criticism of what we might call the “cognitive elite,” or the “meritocratic winners.”

This link between discontent over status and populism could imply that the meritocracy has had its day. But the picture is not as simple as that. Recent work We have conducted underlines how ingrained the notion of meritocracy is. According to our report, there is a “widespread belief among the British public that our own efforts are key to getting ahead in life”, with 76% believing that hard work is essential or very important in determining success.

Excerpt from Unequal Britain: Attitudes to Inequalities After Covid-19
Excerpt from Unequal Britain: Attitudes to Inequalities After Covid-19

In more specific terms, what then does this mean in the midst of a pandemic? The response provided by our recent survey was surprising: the public was more likely to say that those who lost their jobs during the pandemic were not unlucky. They deserved it. Almost half of us think that poor performance explains why someone may have been fired during Covid-19. Only 31% think that luck might have something to do with it. The pandemic was not “the great leveler.” He chose his victims on the basis of merit.

The irony, of course, is that the effects of Covid are far from a reflection of “merit.” Who has been most exposed to the health risks of Covid-19? They have been those who do not work at home behind a desk. And who has been most exposed to economic risks? The Institute for Fiscal Studies he found that by the third quarter of 2020, there had been a 7% reduction in the number of graduates who performed some hour of paid work and a 17% reduction in the number of undergraduates. Thus, the pandemic may have the effect of economically entrenching these cultural divisions that have shaken our politics since the referendum.

In part, this process has been managed through the licensing scheme, an unprecedented experiment to preserve people’s social status while they have been out of work. The success of the licensing scheme lies in the fact that it is outside the logic of meritocracy. Only one in four of the public thinks the licensing plan encourages reliance on the state, and just under half, 49%, say they disagree.

However, when it comes to unemployment benefit, the opposite is true: the public, by almost identical margins, say that unemployment benefit makes people more dependent on the state. This dissonance can be explained by the fact that only one of these governance schemes has been steeped in the language and logic of meritocracy for decades.

The question is what happens if these now disproportionately undergraduates emerge into a world of economic crisis and rising unemployment. The answer, for better or worse, is unlikely to challenge the view that hard work, a good education, and ambition are what it takes to keep going.

  • Anand Menon is director of The United Kingdom in a changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College, London; Alan Wager is Research Associate at The UK in a Changing Europe

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