Brexit, meritocracy and the retreat from reason

Chris Grey, who blogs about Brexit and related matters, is someone well worth following. A recent post explored the fascinating links between the ‘partygate’ scandals currently engulfing the Johnson administration and the ideas and individuals that drove Vote Leave. It raised again a central paradox of current politics – that while Brexit and populism as a whole are driven by the idea of ordinary folk rising up against the ‘elite’, its leaders are, on any reasonable definition, far more ‘elite’ than the great mass of their supporters.

Nigel Farage makes a reasonable pretence of being a ‘man of the people’ and doesn’t highlight his background as a public school educated son of a stockbroker who became a city trader. Johnson however makes no such attempt to conceal his privileged upbringing, using every opportunity to flaunt his schoolboy Greek and Latin learned at Eton and Oxford. Rees-Mogg goes further and presents himself as the perfect caricature of an English toff with his nanny, top hat and exaggeratedly ‘posh’ accent. As Grey says, “the idea that the largely male, public school and/or Oxford educated Brexit leaders – a category that takes in Johnson, Gove, Farage, Cummings, Carswell, Lawson, Rees-Mogg, Hannan, Redwood and many more – are anything other than a privileged elite, is plainly ludicrous”.

Image: Openverse

Grey’s explanation for the paradox is that this group is seen by many as rule breakers and therefore, in some way, ‘authentic’. They appeal to the growing number who resent authority and ‘being told what to do’. This has a ring of truth given the worrying increase in baseless opposition to vaccination and wildly disproportionate complaints about being asked to wear masks. It is reflected in the so-called ‘Freedom convoy’ in Canada and its faintly ludicrous copycat caravan in Somerset.

 I feel, however, Grey, for once, misses something key.

Those supporting Brexit overlap to a considerable degree with those opposing sensible public health measures and those worried about so-called ‘woke warriors’. The elite that they resent seems not to be those born into wealth and privilege but those who are educated. It is the ‘experts’ that Gove famously said we had had enough of, or the supreme court justices, scandalously pilloried as ‘enemies of the people’. It is a revolt against reason with frightening implications.

I suspect that one of the factors driving these attitudes is the pursuit of meritocracy. Those concerned to promote social justice tend to forget that the man who coined the term, Michael Young, saw it as a dystopia. His book ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ explores the social tensions that could arise when society is divided into “a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited.” His fears appear to have been well founded.

Britain is not a pure meritocracy of course, particularly when one considers the topmost echelons of society. Progress on social mobility is limited and according to many has stalled. Not all of those with natural talent achieve their potential in an education system where a privileged social background still confers great advantage.

Nevertheless, most of those who fill the better jobs in our society are those who the education system has identified as the most able. Although exams can’t measure everything no-one seriously suggests that we should select our top surgeons, scientists, pilots or lawyers in any other way. Indeed, we would be in a far worse position than we are, were those at the top of our professions little better educated than the average.

A consequence, however, is that in an increasingly complex society individuals frequently find themselves confronted by regulations that they do not, or often cannot, understand. The standards underpinning legislation on a whole range of matters from product safety to public health are based on complex technical knowledge that few of us possess. The rules necessary to make a single European market and a customs union operate are of the same character.

There is much discussion of how fair our education system is and how efficient it is at recognising and supporting talent. There is, however, an equally important question. What does it feel like to be towards the bottom of a society where wealth, status, and the ability to influence the rules that regulate everyday life, are seen to reflect ability? What does it feel like, for it constantly to be implied that the rules that constrain you were made by people who are cleverer, as well as richer, than you?

My hypothesis is that the growing hostility to expertise across the western world feeds on an underlying resentment of an unequal society that marks people as responsible for their own failure. Being ‘told what to do’ by someone because they are well qualified rubs further salt in the wound. Unable to challenge the basis for irksome restrictions in technical terms, objection takes the form of vague, but loudly asserted, demands for ‘freedom’.

This is of course just a hypothesis, but it fits the facts and if true has profound implications. An immediate one is that although the vote for Brexit was, in large part, driven by ignorance, it is not at all helpful to say so.

More fundamentally, policymakers need to balance their enthusiasm for ‘equality of opportunity’ with an increased focus on the dignity and worth of all citizens. It is right to seek to remove barriers that prevent some individuals from achieving their potential. But the more we emphasise the imperative of fair competition the more we assign a stigma to ‘failure’. If it’s very, very important to give people a fair chance to win, its obviously a very, very bad thing to lose.

Moreover, the more that selection is, and is seen to be, fair, the heavier the psychological cost of losing. Although success in the English education system doesn’t always reflect raw ability, making selection more accurate could make the losers feel worse. It would emphasise even more their personal responsibility for their poor circumstances.

Our education system is organised around the idea of a meritocracy. At every stage pupils are tested, sorted and stratified in an attempt to select the winners. We need to give at least equal weight to raising the achievements of the whole population and reducing the levels of inequality that currently scar our society. Otherwise, we are likely to see more of the inarticulate and unfocused rage that drives the populist bandwagon.