A bastardised understanding of meritocracy has become part of bling self-indulgence

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Last winter, I bumped into the masterly Indian batsman Rahul Dravid at a charity dinner in Sydney. Dravid gave a speech and in a question- and-answer session showed why he is a gentleman as well as a champion. He was asked how he stayed so motivated, even in his late 30s. Dravid replied that as a schoolboy, he noticed that many kids had at least as much desire to play professional cricket as he did. But you could tell – from just one ball bowled or one shot played – that they simply didn’t have the talent. “I was given a talent to play cricket,” he explained. “I don’t know why I was given it. But I was. I owe it to all those who wish it had been them to give of my best, every day.”

Instead of peddling the meritocratic fantasy that he had little natural talent and dragged himself to the top through hard work alone, Dravid interpreted his genetic good fortune as innately bound up with his responsibilities. Too often talent and opportunity are excised from the story of great lives for fear that they might detract from the “deserved success” that apparently follows from sweat and tears. I remembered Dravid’s words this week, reflecting on the wonderful speech given by Ben Bernanke to Princeton graduates. It may be too early to judge how well Bernanke has done as chairman of the Federal Reserve. But we can give him an “A” for moral philosophy.

Whatever you think about quantitative easing, it’s hard not to raise a cheer to that. Yet Bernanke’s speech has not lacked detractors. Matthew Syed, writing in the Times, dismissed the speech as “deeply flawed, not just in its philosophical terms but in its psychological consequences”. His reasons why we should not believe in luck provide an excellent summary of conventional wisdom. He argues, “If we believe that another person’s success is solely a matter of social and genetic good fortune, are we not likely to resent it?”

Bernanke didn’t say “solely” but let’s still deal with Syed’s objection that Victoria Beckham deserves to be eulogised for her hard work. Syed also worries that, “If our own failure has nothing to do with us – it’s the useless genes endowed by our parents and the hopeless school we attended – doesn’t that give us an excuse to sit and fester?” Bernanke didn’t say that either but the wider point still warrants a rejoinder.

Believing in luck does not lead to a surfeit of jealousy and resentment. The sociology of luck demonstrates quite the reverse. Helmut Schoeck’s book Envyshowed how the idea of luck ameliorates social divisions. In contrast, tribes and societies that lack a concept or word for luck find it hard to develop enterprise and aspiration. Nor does believing in luck thwart individual ambition. Even Kerry Packer, the brash, highly driven, alpha-male Australian tycoon, once told a friend of mine: “When you meet a successful person who doesn’t believe he’s been lucky, you know you’ve just met a complete jerk.” Arguing that we will only try hard if we pretend that effort is the sole determining factor reduces all human beings to the psychological level of toddlers.

Nor is the idea of luck politically simplistic. The left, it is true, may interpret the question of luck through the prism of opportunity and injustice. But thinking about luck should lead even the most sceptical Conservative, opposed to any kind of utopian thinking, to reflect on his social responsibilities.

Where luck is underestimated, meritocracy has suffered from theoretical overshoot. Advances in meritocracy in real life have prompted wildly overstated advances in theory. While it is true that no one any longer inherits a rotten borough, it doesn’t follow that modern life is perfectly meritocratic.

Michael Young coined the term as a satirical warning in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958. The idea was quickly misinterpreted and misappropriated. Much later, writing four years into New Labour, Young revisited the idea: “If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug . . . So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.”

A bastardised understanding of meritocracy has become part of bling self-indulgence. I earned it, I deserve it, I owe no one, thank nobody. It is all justified by the convenient theory that success follows simply from “hard work”. The crucial point is missed: hard work is necessary but not sufficient. Many people work hard. Only a very few have the ultimate good fortune: their hard work interacts with luck and opportunity and ends in serious success. Quite simply, there are more deserving people than there are seats at the table.

It is hard to improve on Bernanke’s reference to the Gospel of Luke: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”.

Rahul Dravid. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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