Like most ‘isms’ fashion is deeply ephemeral. Theresa May, the UK’s confused and belligerent Brexit prime minister, can often be seen wearing the most God-awful shoes. The PM’s flamboyant sense of shoe fashion mirrors perfectly with her off-hand dealings with the EU issue and, more importantly, how she wishes to define her premiership: through meritocracy. Enabling those who currently lose from the system to gain. However, is meritocracy really the right path to deal with economy-wide inequalities?
May’s pitch, and that’s what it is, for a renewed UK meritocracy, is pure folly. As sociologist Anthony Giddens, the Third-Way high priest behind most of Blairite policy formulation puts it,
many must move down for others to move up.
To achieve this lofty aim, the government has in its sight renewed interest in expanding Grammar schools, as a vehicle to empower meritocracy. Grammar schools, for the most part actually conceal great inequalities within (poorer) communities. Ultimately, inequality starts at an early age. Children whose parents do not nurture them nor show any interest begin the cycle and by the time they are eligible to take Grammar school entrance exams, those left behind can never recover. And as such, Meritocracy is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothes. The Third Way author, Anthony Giddens, provides a classic example from Soviet Russia,
After all, even in the relatively egalitarian Soviet-style societies, where wealth couldn’t secure the advancement of children, privileged groups were able to transmit advantages to their offspring.
The prime minister’s message appeals to a large swathe of the Brexit heartland. Unfortunately, for those constituencies, ‘meritocracy’ is meant to put them back in their place and punish them for their stupidity: It appeals to naivety, those willing to believe anything.
The poor are excluded from vast chunks of society. The real issue here is wealth, aspirations, and role models. Meritocracy is effectively saying, “you’re poor, you’re stupid, and this policy cements your position in society”.
Rather than colour her time in charge as a defining moment in creating an (un)equal society. Perhaps the PM should encourage English devolution. By loosening the Norman-grip on ‘Northern England’, she should be encouraging greater inclusion and most importantly, responsible parenting. If financial inequalities are never going to be ironed out, the very best that Whitehall can do for those languishing in the Brexit heartlands is to encourage middle-class virtues.