Did you know about the torrid affair between the elderly plumber and the young and ravishing Lady Avocet? Probably not, unless you are familiar with the latest American edition of The Rise of the Meritocracy. Michael Young's introduction recounts the difficulty he had finding a publisher in dour, 1950s Britain for his mischievous satire. "I hawked it around from one publisher to another - 11 of them - and was always turned down." Chatto & Windus urged him to rewrite it as a more conventional novel. Young had a go, incorporated his Lady Chatterley-style liaison, but Chatto still said no. Finally, Thames & Hudson agreed to publish the book in its original form. The rest, as they say, is history. Young's book has been published in seven languages and sold in countless countries, giving us not only a new word, meritocracy, but a tenacious worm that has been chomping its way through the apple of socialist thought ever since.
Young's warning - that a true meritocracy would be a mean and divided society, in which the "deserving" winners would contemptuously hold down the "undeserving" losers - has been given new voice by Roy Hattersley since the general election. In the Observer, on 24 June, he accused Tony Blair of having led a "coup d'etat" against Labour's "legitimate philosophy" by choosing meritocracy as "his destiny".
Three days later, Hattersley returned to the attack in the Guardian. "I hoped that [Blair] instinctively shared Young's view that a society which regards rewarding intelligence and industry as part of its defining ethos betrays the deprived and disadvantaged." Sadly, Hattersley was forced to conclude that Blair either had no such instinct, or did not understand what meritocracy really meant. "I do not know which distresses me most, the apostasy or the naivety."
In one sense, Hattersley is absolutely right. Blair has turned Labour into a very different animal from the one that its former deputy leader spent three decades trying to nurture. To the accusation that he has abandoned Hattersley's brand of social democracy, the Prime Minister's only sensible response is: "Guilty and proud of it." On the other hand, any open-minded jury would surely acquit the Prime Minister of mounting a coup d'etat. From almost his first day as Labour's first truly democratically chosen leader, Blair made his purpose clear. At each stage since, he has been candid with the party and the public about his intentions. Hattersley may dislike the 1997 and 2001 manifestos, but he cannot seriously maintain that they offered a dishonest prospectus of the way Labour would govern. The real, democratically despicable "coup d'etat" would be for the Prime Minister now to declare: "Forget the election promises we made last month. I have decided to break most of them and revert to the policies I persuaded the party to abandon six years ago."
However, it is not enough, as Downing Street seems to think, simply to mock Hattersley, deputy leader at the time of two crushing Labour defeats, for patronising the man who has led the party to its two biggest election victories. Strip away the lurid language, ignore the accuser's past failings; there is an important argument that needs to be fought out. What role should meritocracy play in today's Labour Party?
Hattersley builds his case on two main propositions, one moral and the other social. His moral argument flows from the idea that merit comprises the combination of intelligence and effort. "Both intelligence and effort are inherited characteristics. So Young concludes, as all socialists should, that 'being a member of the lucky sperm club confers no moral right to advantage'. Yet that is what meritocracy aims to provide. To them that hath, more shall be given." (Note that the term "lucky sperm club" implies that only male genes matter. Is the failure to acknowledge female hereditary influences accidental or deliberate?)
Hattersley's social argument is that, far from helping to create a fairer society, a true meritocracy will preserve, and possibly widen, the gap between rich and poor. "Meritocracy removes the barriers to progress which block the path of the clever and industrious . . . But . . . the Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape. Meritocracy only offers shifting patterns of inequality."
In the Guardian of 29 June, Young himself joined the debate. He wrote that his 43-year-old prediction, that meritocracy would reinforce the curse of inequality, had come true. "I expected that the poor and disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later employment. They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves. It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that."
What is more, argues Young, the losers "have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders". Two of the giants of Attlee's postwar government, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, had left school early and been errand boys before beginning their rise through the working-class labour movement. Under a meritocratic system, they would have stayed at school, gone to university, and followed a very different career path. They might still have ended up as Labour ministers, but the link between their adult lives and the daily experiences of the poor would have been broken.
Hattersley and Young fear that the government's latest education policy will make matters even worse. By abandoning its faith in "bog-standard" comprehensive schools, and moving towards specialist secondary schools, Hattersley and Young see a thinly veiled attempt to divide Britain even more cruelly between winners and losers. Those children whose aptitude and diligence qualify them for a high place on the meritocratic scale will (they argue) be given a superior education to those who are never going to make the grade.
This is precisely what Young predicted in The Rise of the Meritocracy. His pro-meritocracy anti-hero offers this justification for reintroducing educational selection: "No longer is it so necessary to debase standards by attempting to extend a higher civilisation to the children of the lower classes."
That, then, is the case against meritocracy in general and Blair's political strategy in particular. It is not a silly or negligible case. Meritocracy is undoubtedly a double-edged weapon. But that is far, very far, from saying that it should be decommissioned, dismantled and locked away. To adapt Churchill's comment about democracy: "Meritocracy is the worst form of social organisation except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Let us start with an observation that should command wide agreement. A modern society needs its scientists and surgeons, its generals and engineers, its teachers and town planners, its bankers and broadcasters, its artists and athletes. The question is: by what criteria should they be selected? To a depressingly large extent, the playing field remains appallingly uneven. Look at the House of Commons, the higher reaches of the civil service or the boardrooms of companies in the FTSE 100, and count the number of black or female faces. Look at the top universities and count how many undergraduates come from inner-city comprehensives.
Unless we believe that talent is tied to class, race or gender, we see a society in which all kinds of conscious and cultural prejudices still hold sway. When the Prime Minister talks about building a more meritocratic Britain, he does so having studied data on discrimination that has been compiled for him over the past year by the Downing Street Policy Unit. Those who have seen this evidence say that it paints a terrifying picture of the way our schools, universities and employers too often fail to spot, recruit and nurture people with potential, because their face or voice does not fit. This is as true of the public sector - central and local government and the armed forces - as it is of private industry. It is a national disgrace, and recognised as such by those closest to Tony Blair.
The case for meritocracy is that it seeks to sweep away these horrors, and make sure that people progress at different stages in their lives according to their aptitudes alone, rather than according to factors that should have no place in a just and democratic society. Hattersley and Young make a number of important criticisms of meritocracy, but they do not propose any alternative. Is this omission accidental or deliberate? It is certainly convenient, for it allows them to evade the logic of their argument. The implied position of the anti-meritocrats is that nothing should be done to remove the glass ceiling that impedes the careers of many women, or to make sure that black and Asian Britons enjoy their fair share of opportunities to reach the top, or help working-class children achieve entry to the best universities.
True, this case for meritocracy does not provide a complete answer to the "lucky genes" argument. But neither does any other system of social organisation, unless we are to fill jobs at random - so that we end up with engineers who can't count, athletes who can't run and doctors who faint at the sight of blood. I doubt whether Lord Hattersley would happily fly the Atlantic in an aircraft whose captain had not passed a wide range of stringent tests. As long as we live in a society in which different jobs require different skills, some mechanism will be needed to decide whom to prepare, train and finally pick. And as long as those skills reflect innate aptitudes, at least to some extent, the rules and benefits of the "lucky genes club" are bound to apply.
Indeed, the choice is not between a "lucky genes club" and a "random genes club" society. The decision is whether people advance because of relevant aptitudes or because of irrelevant qualities, such as skin pigmentation, family wealth or the balance of X and Y chromosomes. The battle for meritocracy is not the same as the battle for equality - Hattersley is right about that - but it is a central plank of the battle against discrimination and prejudice.
What, though, about the danger that a truly meritocratic society would be mean and divided, with successful men and women looking down contemptuously on the unsuccessful, who would end up poor, demoralised and leaderless? To some degree, this argument implies a rosy view of Britain's past, in which upper-class white men understood that they did not deserve to dominate the country's power and wealth. This is a novel view of history. To a depressingly large extent, success has always acted contemptuously towards failure. Far from softening that contempt, the "undeserving" factors in success, such as race, class and gender, have helped to reinforce it. Indeed, one definition of prejudice is that it is a set of attitudes which make people feel innately superior for quite the wrong reasons. Sure, there is a danger that meritocracy-winners will sneer at meritocracy-losers; but it is not immediately obvious why they should sneer any more viciously than past winners who owed their success to a mouthful of silver spoons at birth.
Yet, even if it is not true that meritocracy will make Britain's divisions worse, the danger remains that neither will it do anything to build greater unity. It could end up simply replacing one set of social divisions with another. If Labour is serious about the creation of a one-nation society - and even more if it is serious about winning "the battle for true equality", as Tony Blair said in his speech to the party conference in 1999 - this danger must be faced.
The critical task is to reconcile meritocracy with "equal worth" (the Prime Minister's preferred concept). The real value of Young's satire is to show how difficult this will be, and how cruel society could become if the effort does not succeed. What, then, is to be done? Here are three suggestions.
First, address Hattersley's point that Labour should "change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape". Nobody should be condemned to material suffering by the operation of meritocratic mechanisms. Had this argument been raging four years ago, when Labour first came to power, proposals would have included the introduction of a national minimum wage, lower unemployment, higher child benefit rates, better training for school leavers, more financial support for low-paid workers with children, and greater help for the inner cities. Four years on, these things have all been done. There is still much more to do. Sadly, Gordon Brown has lost the battle to retain the freedom to increase tax rates for very high earners. But this is already the most redistributive Labour government Britain has ever had - and far more redistributive than any of which Hattersley was a member.
Second, make sure that everyone has access to the high-quality services and facilities that are needed in order to build an "equal worth" society. This includes healthcare, education, decent housing, transport, freedom from the fear of being mugged, accessible banks, and accessible shops selling fresh food at reasonable prices. If the move towards specialised secondary schools ends up with middle-class suburban children continuing to receive a better education than working-class inner-city children, then Hattersley's fears will be fulfilled, and his condemnation of new Labour, wholly justified.
The test will be whether diversity raises standards all round - and, in particular, for the kinds of pupils whom the comprehensive system has not served well during the past 30 years. Hattersley sees the new policy as a way of doing down children from poor families; ministers see it as a way of rescuing these same children from a system that too often fails them. If the government cannot demonstrate in the years ahead that it is right and he is wrong, then new Labour really will be in deep trouble.
Third, meritocracy must mean downward mobility for middle-class families, as well as upward mobility for working-class families. This point was made explicitly in a paper written by Geoff Mulgan, the director of Blair's Performance and Innovation Unit, and published just before the general election campaign. Without a reduction in the "barriers to downward social mobility for dull middle-class children", too few places would be available higher up a meritocratic hierarchy for bright working-class children. So far, Blair has not shown any inclination to endorse Mulgan's analysis, even less act on it.
That is far from a complete list of measures which could help to reconcile meritocracy and "equal worth". Its purpose is to show that Hattersley and Young are too fatalistic. Reconciliation is possible, but far from easy. Meritocracy is best regarded as a powerful and mainly beneficial drug, but with potentially nasty side effects. The drug is needed, and in larger doses, if Britain is to make both social and economic progress; but the side effects need attention, too. Britain needs more meritocracy, not less. Meritocracy alone, though, is not enough.