This essay, on changing attitudes to class, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on cookery books.) It was published in the Observer, 30 December 2018, under the headline ‘Posh is so passé – today’s elite prefers the myth of the meritocracy’.
I’m not posh,’ an irate David Dimbleby told the Today presenter John Humphrys. ‘I come from Wales, as you do.’ Dimbleby, who this month stepped down as host of BBC’s Question Time, was being interviewed by Humphrys, another stalwart of BBC journalism. Humphrys wondered whether Dimbleby’s poshness helped him maintain close ties to the royal family. ‘There’s a typical sneer in that question,’ Dimbleby retorted.
Whether coming from Wales is sufficient protection against poshness is a moot point. Dimbleby was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club. His second wife, Belinda Giles, is the granddaughter of an earl. His son Henry attended Eton (at the same time as Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg). That’s not exactly an unprivileged background.
Privilege, though, is a quality that desires not to speak its name. No one wants to have their accomplishments attributed to their background. Talent and hard work, we like to believe, are the brokers of success in a meritocracy.
So entrenched as a social aspiration has meritocracy become that we often forget that the term was coined in mockery. In his 1958 satire, The Rise of Meritocracy, the sociologist Michael Young told of a society in which classes were sorted not by the hereditary principle but by the formula IQ + Effort = Merit.
In this new society, ‘the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity’, while the lower orders deserve their fate. Having been tested again and again and ‘labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly’, they have no choice but ‘to recognise that they have an inferior status’.
Young’s dystopian meritocracy doesn’t (yet) exist, but we have something perhaps worse: the pretence of a meritocracy. The pretence that talent will achieve its just rewards in a society in which class distinctions continue to shape educational outcomes, job prospects, income and health.
But if class still determines social fate, the cleavage between the elite and the masses has been remade. Today’s elite is no longer the ‘establishment’ of old, nor primarily defined through aristocratic heredity. Education has become a primary marker of social difference.
As Western societies have become more technocratic, so there has developed, the political scientist David Runciman observed, ‘a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite’ – bankers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, pundits, academics. Once knowledge has become ‘a prerequisite of power, then it no longer speaks for itself’ but ‘appears to speak for the worldview of the people who possess it’.
Today, we simultaneously deride poshness and want to be seen as having the common touch (hence Dimbleby’s outrage at being called posh), while also showing contempt for those who are deemed too common and whose commonness exhibits itself in the refusal to accept the wisdom of expertise and in being in possession of the wrong social values.
Trump supporters, wrote David Rothkopf, professor of international relations, former CEO of Foreign Policy magazine and a member of Bill Clinton’s administration, are people ‘threatened by what they don’t understand and what they don’t understand is almost everything’. They regard knowledge as ‘not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman’. Much the same has been said about Brexit supporters.
Opposition to populism has too often turned into scorn for the ability of ordinary people to take important political decisions. ‘It is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication,’ the biologist Richard Dawkins observed. The right to vote, many insist, should be restricted to those with sufficient knowledge.
‘Today, we frankly recognise that democracy can be no more than aspiration,’ Young wrote in his 1958 satire, ‘and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.’ The trouble is, such a view is no longer seen as satire.
‘Class distinctions,’ as Richard Hoggart, the cultural studies pioneer, once observed, ‘do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves.’ Posh like the upper classes we may no longer want to be. Contemptuous of the lower orders too many remain.
The image is from ‘The Class Sketch’ on ‘The Frost Report’, BBC, 1966.