The only way is up

In his critique of Roy Hattersley's charge that Tony Blair has mounted a coup d'etat in the Labour Party ("Yes, we still need meritocracy", 9 July), Peter Kellner writes: "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." He makes no mention of cleaners or corporals, bricklayers or bus drivers, machinists or mechanics, and this omission reveals the gremlin that bedevils so many of our social, economic and educational policies and relationships: the presumption that merit is middle-class.

There is no merit in being an excellent bricklayer in Britain. If bricklayers and bus drivers want merit, they must become bankers or broadcasters. The secret of success in a British meritocracy is to be upwardly mobile. Middle class is "up" and working class is "down". And as you move "upwards", the rules become more favourable. A broadcaster who earns £300,000 a year is regarded as successful, while a bus driver who earns £30,000 a year must be fiddling the overtime.

Geoff Garrett
London SW19

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?