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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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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