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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Supreme Court gives MPs a vote on Brexit – but who are the real winners?

The Supreme Court ruled that Parliament must have a say in starting the process of Brexit. But this may be a hollow victory for Labour. 

The Supreme Court has ruled by a majority of 8 to 3 that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament, as leaving the European Union represents a change of a source of UK law, and a loss of rights by UK citizens, which can only be authorised by the legislature, not the executive. (You can read the full judgement here).

But crucially, they have unanimously ruled that the devolved parliaments do not need to vote before the government triggers Article 50.

Which as far as Brexit is concerned, doesn't change very much. There is a comfortable majority to trigger Article 50 in both Houses of Parliament. It will highlight Labour's agonies over just how to navigate the Brexit vote and to keep its coalition together, but as long as Brexit is top of the agenda, that will be the case.

And don't think that Brexit will vanish any time soon. As one senior Liberal Democrat pointed out, "it took Greenland three years to leave - and all they had to talk about was fish". We will be disentangling ourselves from the European Union for years, and very possibly for decades. Labour's Brexit problem has a long  way yet to run.

While the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will not be able to stop or delay Brexit, that their rights have been unanimously ruled against will be a boon to Sinn Féin in the elections in March, and a longterm asset to the SNP as well. The most important part of all this: that the ruling will be seen in some parts of Northern Ireland as an unpicking of the Good Friday Agreement. That issue hasn't gone away, you know. 

But it's Theresa May who today's judgement really tells you something about. She could very easily have shrugged off the High Court's judgement as one of those things and passed Article 50 through the Houses of Parliament by now. (Not least because the High Court judgement didn't weaken the powers of the executive or require the devolved legislatures, both of which she risked by carrying on the fight.)

If you take one thing from that, take this: the narrative that the PM is indecisive or cautious has more than a few holes in it. Just ask George Osborne, Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan and Ed Vaizey: most party leaders would have refrained from purging an entire faction overnight, but not May.

Far from being risk-averse, the PM is prone to a fight. And in this case, she's merely suffered delay, rather than disaster. But it may be that far from being undone by caution, it will be her hotblooded streak that brings about the end of Theresa May.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.