You are on page 1of 4

Looking Back on Meritocracy

(interviewed by Geoff Dench on 22 March 19941)
Michael, I want to talk about the Meritocracy book a bit, because this is your o
ne written work of fiction, and I think that's a very interesting medium because
you can explore things that you feel ambivalent about in fiction in a way that
you can't in other contexts. And I think I can see lots of contradictions being
worked out perhaps in there. How did you actually come to write Meritocracy in t
he first place? Was it because of a need to work things out in some way?
I've always found equality as a notion extremely difficult. I know I'm for it, b
ut I'm not absolutely sure what I'm for. I think it's more true to say that soci
alism is about fraternity than what Tony Crosland said, that socialism is about
equality, but I think of them as bound up together. And I could see one thing, i
n talking about equalityespecially to a philosopher friend of mine called Prudenc
e Smith, who has a very searching analytical mindwhich showed me how shoddy my th
inking was (this was after the war) on these subjects. [This is] that I didn't u
nderstand what I meant by the 'equality' that I was so much in favour of. But I
could also see that equality of opportunity, which had so much more of a followi
ng than equality, was itself going to produce greater inequality and was one of
the basic contradictions I guess of the whole societyall modern societiesbecause t
hey all believe in equality to some extent. I mean, all advanced ones, they all
have some adherence to democracy; one man, one woman, one vote, et cetera, and t
hey all believe in equality of opportunity, which legitimises inequality in a wa
y that wasn't possible before the idea of equality of opportunity as having a gr
eat practical relevance to education was very thought out. So I do think of it a
s a very deep-lying contradiction in society.
I tried to put it down in a Fabian essay, in a book of Fabian essays, modern Fab
ian essays, and some of it, and luckily (it was one of those lucky things like t
he Consumer Advisory Service), Dick Crossman, who was the editor of this, though
t that it was a hopeless essay and I was calling in question equality of opportu
nity and all sorts of things that good Labour Party members ought to have been f
or, to have been in favour of, and wouldn't put it in the book of essays. So I t
hought: well, I'm not going to get it published as an essay; I'd better try and
make it into a book. And I made it into a book. But I thought it was much ... I
hoped there wasn't any ambiguity about my own position, but of course there was,
as people saw it, read it. And what I was trying to state was the contradiction
and the ambiguity in modern society and put both points of view as clearly as I
couldbut in making fun of both of them too, and specially making fun of the peop
le who believed in equality of opportunity, because I wasn't siding with them. B
ut I hoped that my own tiny voice was also apparent there, and what I thought.
In what ways were you misunderstood, do you think, by some readers?
Oh, I mean all the time, I have been understood in I think roughly the same way.
I wrote it as an attack on the 'meritocracy': it would be a more wounding, stra
tified system perhaps than had been known since the days of slavery. But people
have taken it that I was lauding this society and wanting it to push ahead and a
rrive as quickly as possible.
Was there an impetus within the Labour Party towards meritocracy?
Yes, certainly, and even more in the Conservative Party; it's something they've
agreed on.
How far do you think that the book itself helped to resist this by promoting the

comprehensive idea?
No, it didn't.
You feel that things have developed in this direction?
So the book would be as relevant today as it was then?
Well, it's obviously out of date, but there has just been a new American edition
. I've written a new introduction, I've tried to bring it up to date but not ver
y satisfactorily.
Did the book draw at all on the work that you had started doing in Bethnal Green
? No.
Because one of the things that I found interesting in it was that it developed t
he idea of fraternity, but it takes women as central in actually promoting it. N
ow, does this arise at all out of the discovery of the strength of the mother/da
ughter relationship within the community?
Yes, perhaps it does; I hadn't thought of that before. But it's my own point of
view in the bookthat what I had thought of as women's values, as against men's va
lues, that women's values are the ones that I was trying to side with and espous
e. And I think, I mean I still do, that there's something in it; I think there i
s a sort of fundamental divide, I suppose, between valuing people according to w
hat they are and valuing people according to what they do. I think generally men
care more for the second and women more for the first, and I was trying to argu
e for the first. And if you think that way, then of course there's no doubt that
if you really value people for what they are, I mean what they are deeply, as h
uman beings, then of course you can't have a class or caste system that's going
to be very strong, however much the men do. But I was imagining that women might
win the day andor women as of that time anywayand that would be wonderful if they
Because in the female community there are no classes?
No, there are classes, but I thought, I mean I thought the women then weren't so
much harnessed as they have since become to the productive, the economic system
. I mean the women's values that I was trying to bring out were the values of wo
men who were in homes, and with children, and good mothers and good grandmothers
and so on, I suppose. But women who go into the productive system, I mean they
have the same sort of valuesbut not to the same extentas men.
But were you in a sense looking for this when you left the Labour Party research
to go to Bethnal Green, because the Labour Party in government was all about pr
oduction and the state, and you were moving over to look at the moral economy re
ally. Or wasn't this conscious?
Yes, the Labour Party had a fair amount about the moral economy. The speech I di
dn't write for Attlee in the 1945 election said that socialism is no more than t
he family writ large on the canvas of society. I mean, the moral base of the Lab
our Party, at that time anyway, was fairly strong because it came straight out o
f places like Bethnal Green. Class loyalty, solidarity, mutual support and so on
; and there were non-conformist churches above all, I suppose. It was still a ve
ry strong strand, all the stronger because it was mostly taken for granted and n
ot very much out in the open. It was a moral party; it no longer is.
But there is another contradiction here, which again comes out in the meritocrac

y, between the family as a selfish institution because it's smaller than the sta
te but also the family as a source of moral value for an individual. How do you
feel about that? I mean, do you see the family as more of a selfish than a moral
No. Must be both.
Depending on the level.
It's our only moral institution of any fundamental importance. Nothing else.
How did the Labour Party in the fifties feel about the family, because the Labou
r Party at the moment is very confused. Was it then?
Yes, it was, that was I suppose a strand in the family studies, and what I did i
n that last Labour Party document. It was still the case that families were thou
ght, at any rate by advanced thinkers in the Labour Party, as being passe, finis
hed, and there had been quite an influence, world-wide, on socialism, from Russi
a, where the family wasn't exactly held in the highest possible esteem. And that
kind of feminism that flourished then was on a great deal about the fetters; th
e way in which the family had fettered women, prevented them from realising thei
r individuality, and so on. [It was] regarded as rather a conservative, and wors
e, institution by some people; but it was already changing.
In the early thirties it was really quite strong, and my mother, I know, would n
ot use the word 'family' really; she was an advanced thinker of her time! I mean
it was just something you just didn't talk about, was obviously no good. You we
re leading new liberated lives (God!) as cohabitantseven if they weren't called t
hat then.
But the main argument in Meritocracy is between individual and group, individual
and state, and one of the things that it is addressing is the issue of whether
you need to reward people. In your own life, you feel very strongly pulled to do
things; you don't feel that you need a reward. And one of the things perhaps th
at the Labour Party is itself still mixed about is the need to reward people for
labourand this comes back to the citizen's wage, things like that. How did you a
ctually feel when you were writing Meritocracy; did you feel then that the Labou
r Party had got it wrong and that you were moving away from that position, or no
No, I don't remember that sort of thinking being in my mind. I suppose part of t
he sort of female position, the Lady Avocet position [character in the book], wa
s that public service, doing things out of loyalty and love, could turn out to b
e some of the best things that were done. I suppose this comes back to the famil
y too. And some of the best institutions in the country were those in which ther
e were people who did [reply lost here].
In the fifties there was still very much an idea of serving the state; of public
service, and being rewarded by the state for things that you contributed to it.
That seems much, much weaker now. In many circles in this country there is a fe
eling that the state, society, owes you a living. Do you think that this is a lo
ng-term shift, or do you think this is just something which is superficial and w
ill disappear again quickly?
No, a long-term shift towards a more individualistic society. Most people, if th
ey are to be rewarded in other ways than by money, need to be rewarded by respec
t given by others. And if there aren't many important 'others' in your lifefor in
stance, in some sort of community setting, or extended family or somethingthen th
ere aren't the people to give you the respect that can be a very powerful motiva
ting force and incentive. And if you are to a greater extent on your own, with y

our own nuclear family or whatever, and you haven't so many people in your life
that matter to you, or matter not in the same kind of way, and objects and thing
s have to quite a large extent taken the place of people, what you do with your
daily life, then money becomes ever more important as a way (I mean quite apart
from what it will buy, the comfort it will give and the security it will give),
but it becomes also a sort of symbolic token of respect.
If you earn money then you are worth something to other people; to the much wide
r community, whose members you may not know at all individually, but it has give
n you something. And I mean that's why we need work, because it is a way of gett
ing that kind of respect from others.
Still, we are social animals, but the society in which we are animals in common
has become one in which we don't see the other animals, even hear them in the ni
ght! With their strange noises. They are there, but they are kind of invisible a
nd they [affect us] greatly. And we like to have the feeling that they have some
concern for us, even though it's only shown through giving us a certain salary
or bit of money.
But do you think the way things have changed is consistent with the predictions
or fears in the Meritocracy book?
Yes. Yes, I think the circle has been squared really, fairly satisfactorily, as
I feared it would be, and there is in some ways greater equality. Not just votin
g, we had that before, but I think that there's . . . people can meet each other
more freely from different classes than they did. There's still all kinds of ba
rriers, [but] I mean you can't see, you can't immediately mark out people by the
ir dress and their demeanour as you could. Poor people aren't stunted as they us
ed to be; it was quite unusual in South Shields in 1910 for any man to be higher
than five foot. They are more equal in height and more equal in other ways, nut
rition has become much better, et cetera.
But at the same time, alongside that, while equality might have extended itself
much more widely, it has only extended itself because the demands of the kinds o
f technology-driven society we have are for more and more highly competent peopl
e to pull levers and to design the levers. And that means an education system wh
ich is harnessed to the productive system even more closely than it was before.
And it has taken the heart out of millions of children as a consequence and has
led to the . . . some of the awful things that are happening to families and com
munities. But still the momentum of it is tremendous, world-wide. And how to tak
e a grip on that, in the interests of a sort of equality that would be wider but
not stultifying, is the great intellectual task.
So the book hasn't been self-defeating in the sense of preventing what you feare
d happening?
No, no. Not only has it come out as I feared it would, but it hasn't been taken
as a warning but been taken as a sort of blessing. Very bad luck.