The Daily Telegraph published one of the more entertaining pieces about the intended wedding. Toby Young gave the new parents-in-law, Charles and Camilla, hints on how to behave at a middle-class dinner party (“bring a bottle of wine”). But Toby Young’s father was the renowned sociologist Michael Young. I doubt if he would have been amused by young Toby’s class-ridden article.
In a classic book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, back in 1958, Young père invented a new word. As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, “meritocracy” is the only concept by a British sociologist to enter the English language since Darwin’s camp-follower, Herbert Spencer, back in the 19th century, thought of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.
Young didn’t welcome the prospect of an all-powerful meritocracy. He feared it would leave behind a disaffected, leaderless working class. He hoped for a revolt against the triumphant meritocrats. He never reckoned that Eton would help to man the barricades.
Could any sociologist have invented an apter surname for the bride-to-be than “Middleton”, with its undertones of Middle England and middle class? Till now, meritocracy has, in practice, surged ahead. Kate’s parents, Michael and Carole, are entrepreneurial examples. Politically, the marker was Tony Blair’s invention of New (ie Middle Class) Labour…
The upshot, as in the United States, is that an ever increasing proportion of the population will hold some kind of degree. Partly because of this, most Americans now think of themselves as “middle class”. In Britain, a sizeable segment still think of themselves as “working class”, because their fathers, or even grandfathers, were working class. But this curious nostalgia is fast fading.
The physical evidence of meritocracy is all around the commuter-land fringes of every town and city in Britain. In Berkshire, where Kate Middleton and David Cameron grew up, estates of “executive homes” have spread like Japanese knotweed. They are sneered at by those who can afford a bit more, just as the interwar pebbledash semis were sneered at. That’s how Britain is. Class obsesses the British, and especially the English, in the same way that race obsesses Americans.
Chalk one up for British sociology: the coining of the word “meritocracy.”
This commentary comes close to asking a question that I have always wondered about: what would society have to look like before it could truly be called meritocratic? This commentator suggests meritocracy has helped many people in England move up to the middle class but ultimately, Prince William from Eton, the symbol of upper-class England, will carry the day. Does a society need to be mostly middle-class? Do most of the citizens have to feel that they have an opportunity to make their way up the class ladder (which seems to be the thought in America)? Does it mean that a majority or a large number pursue and achieve a college education? Does it mean the reduction of blue-collar jobs and a rise in white-collar and professional positions?
This seems difficult to sort out. America likes to think it is meritocratic even as many people have fewer opportunities to move up. Perhaps we could settle on suggesting that America, at least in ideology, is more meritocratic than England?