In Context - Beware the rise of the meritocracy

The legendary sociologist Michael Young begot countless brainchildren, but last week two of them - the Young Foundation and Grandparents Plus - jointly hosted the Michael Young Family and Kinship Memorial Lecture, given by the veteran journalist, latterly professor and cross-bench peer Peter Hennessy.

Sir Peter Hall
Sir Peter Hall

Meritocracy Revisited was all about Young's book The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033. Published in 1958 by a friend after 11 publishers had rejected it, it became a best-seller. Hennessy recalled that Young's basic thesis - that Britain would increasingly be run by a class of super-clever, super-educated people - was intended not as a vision but as a nightmarish warning: his imaginary narrator is killed in 2033 in an uprising of the excluded non-meritocracy.

The ensuing discussion would have been delighted the author. What was coming, what had already arrived, was a meritocracy but by a compound: meritocrats manipulating their children into top schools and universities to become a new Plutocracy, a winner-take-all culture allowing some members (bankers, top BBC figures, footballers) to form a Celebtocracy, and finally their conspiring to loot the economic system: a Kleptocracy. Pretty heady, we agreed over drinks afterwards.

But, it then occurred, there's worse: the Merito-Pluto-Celebro-Kleptocrats are increasingly concentrated in a handful of global mega-cities, London, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai. Their economies are in a kind of permanent overdrive, increasingly isolated from the nation states to which they nominally belong. Two telling news items, this last month. House asking-price changes, October 2012-October 2013: Greater London up 13.8 per cent (average price now £544,232), North West England (excluding Cumbria) down 0.9 per cent (£164,417), the North East and Cumbria down 2.2 per cent (£145,094). Number of UK Michelin-starred restaurants: London 65, North-West England six, the North East and Cumbria one.

Well, talented people always migrated to the big city where the streets were paved with gold: it was the story of Dick Whittington (1354-1423) and of countless others who followed. I told their stories, and those of their cities, in a book I published 15 years ago, Cities in Civilization. And yes, by the nineteenth century the process was already starting to go global. But now it's escalated out of almost anyone's control. And it's far from over. According to Young's prediction, the dramatic end of the meritocracy is still 20 years away.

Sir Peter Hall is Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London.

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