An essay by Michael Bassey

Politicians of left and right extol the merit of meritocracy.  They seem to be ignorant (or unconcerned) of the potential danger that it can become self-regenerating.  


Meritocracy is a political system in which the paths of people’s lives are determined by their individual abilities and effort. Chance is reduced and nepotism abolished. What you know and what you can do replaces the former selection process based on who you know and what they can do for you. Thus the able take the top positions in society and the less able are slotted into other positions according to their lesser abilities and effort. Expressed as such it may have the ring of social justice. But there is more to it than that.


Michael Young, who coined the word, was author of The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). This was a satire of what might happen in Britain between 1958 and an imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033. It was underpinned by an historical analysis showing that before compulsory schooling started in the 1870s, status in society was primarily determined by birth. Thereafter status became gradually more achievable by personal ability and effort.

0n 29 June 2001, six months before he died, he wrote this in The Guardian, under the heading Down with Meritocracy.

    It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. …

    The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancements come from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as the book predicted, all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited. Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied. As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes.


Inevitably a meritocracy in a high pay, high stakes society (such as ours) goes sour. In a meritocratic society people gain senior positions in society because of their merits – their personality, intelligence, managerial ability, talents, and hard work. These people are paid high salaries such that the more senior the role, the higher the pay. This conveys many advantages on their children.


Among the ways in which meritocrats spend their high incomes, the education of their children is prominent. This can happen in various ways: the children are sent to fee-charging independent schools (small classes, able teachers, strong discipline, excellent facilities) which hone their natural talents and give them social contacts of future value; they may have home tutors to coach for examinations; the parents may move house to the catchment area of primary state schools judged to be excellent; the families have holidays in exotic locations which broaden the children’s experience; the parents provide expensive equipment for their children, visits to ski resorts; etc.

The enhanced educational provision of the children of the meritocrats, compared to the children of the rest of society, gives them considerable advantage over the latter in the selection processes for elite universities and for senior posts in industry, business and finance.


Thus society becomes polarized into a meritocracy and underclass which may become as strong a divide as in former times between the aristocracy and underclass. But whereas the latter divide slowly collapsed in the late 19th and the 20th centuries – because of universal education, universal suffrage and the consequent rise of angry and able leaders in the underclass – the new underclass quickly loses any who might become talented leaders because they are absorbed into the meritocracy.

Michael Young clearly saw this in The Rise of the Meritocracy when, in the final chapter (Crisis – purporting to be written early in 2034) he wrote:

    The last century has witnessed a far-reaching redistribution of ability between the classes in society, and the consequence is that the lower classes no longer have the power to make revolt effective.

(But the hint is that a violent and mindless revolt did break out at Peterloo in May of that year – when the ‘author’ of his essay was killed).


Can this be prevented? Is it possible to have a political system where people get top jobs on merit but which avoids giving unjust advantages to their children? Can we avoid creating an underclass whose children, however clever and hard-working, are not given the chance to develop their talents and so inevitably cannot reach the higher echelons of society? Instead of a meritocracy and an underclass can we create a classless society, where everyone is valued as a person contributing to the commonweal of a convivial society?


First, state education has to be universally good so that private education no longer privileges those who can afford it. Progress towards this end was initially made by Labour increasing public spending on education over the decade from 1999 by 5.1% per year in real terms. This was a rise from 4.5% of national income in 1999-2000 to 6.4% in 2009-10. Sadly the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that public spending on education in the UK would fall by 3.5% per year in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15. In the latter year this is estimated to represent only 4.6% of national income.   Unfortunately recent administrations have exercised heavy-handed and often counterproductive control over the school system as is shown in

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education from 2010 to 2014, in announcing yet another ‘reform’ of the National Curriculum, said in early February 2013:

“We are determined to give every child, regardless of background, a broad, balanced education so that by the time their compulsory education is complete they are well-equipped for further study, future employment and adult life.”

But the National Curriculum that he is changing is to be heavily based on factual knowledge committed to memory because he believed that:

“The acquisition of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility.”

He didn’t understand that extremes of economic inequality cannot be overcome by education. He rejectd the view expressed by Basil Bernstein in 1970 that ‘education cannot compensate for society’ and was determined that teachers shall do so.

Second, the income differentials between the lowest and the highest paid need to be reduced substantially. There are many reasons why this is necessary, as set out in Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009), but here the argument is that it would prevent the rich buying privileges for their offspring which unfairly enhance their chances of getting to the top.

Third, our society needs to become more convivial and less wealthiest – as described on this website – so that whole communities, rather than able individuals, raise the quality of life and create a just future for everyone.


Privileged education, gross inequality, and obsession with wealth creation leads to society becoming a malignant meritocracy with a downtrodden underclass. We can avoid this by turning our national aspirations away from wealth creation and towards conviviality.

But  the year 2034 is not far off!

This page was first posted on 5 January 2010 and amended on 8 February 2013 and on 26 November 2015

Nineteen years left?