The Birth of Meritocracy: Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy and Post-War British Politics

The Birth of Meritocracy: Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy and Post-War British Politics

David Civil

During the summer of 1957 the British sociologist Michael Young was holidaying on a beach in North Wales. He had left the Labour Party out of disillusionment during 1951, established the Institute of Community Studies in 1954, and had spent the previous year or so working on a anti-utopian novel, in the mould of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, entitled The Rise of the Meritocracy. (Although the neologism ‘meritocracy’ was first used in print in a 1956 article in Socialist Commentary by Alan Fox, as Jo Littler explains, Young can be credited with coining the term while serving on that journal’s editorial board).  In 1957 Young had hawked his book from one publishing house to another without luck [1]. However, as he strolled across the beach he bumped into an old friend, Walter Neurath. Neurath had just established the publishers Thames & Hudson alongside his wife Eva and as a favour to Young he agreed to publish the book. It proved a lucrative gamble. The Rise of the Meritocracy was republishedup by Penguin in 1961 sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into seven languages.

An interesting counterfactual is to consider what would have happened if Young had never bumped into Neurath on the beach: the book might never have been published and the word meritocracy would never have entered the mainstream political, social and cultural lexicon. What word would be used to capture the unprecedented social mobility of the 1960s? What idea would have distinguished Blair’s Labour Party from a more collectivist socialism? What concept would be placed at the heart of Theresa May’s supposedly more inclusive conservative vision?

In later years perhaps the author himself wished the book (and its accompanying word) had been left to gather dust. In 2001 Young, now Lord Young of Dartington, lamented meritocracy’s dominant position in the ideology of New Labour and the ‘public vocabulary’ of Tony Blair.  Young’s relationship with the Labour Party had always been fraught. He wrote the 1945 manifesto Let Us Face the Future but left his post as Head of the Labour Party Research Department disillusioned with what he saw as the increasingly state-centred socialism of the Attlee governments. In many ways The Rise of the Meritocracy should be read as part of this tumultuous relationship and the emphasis Young placed on concepts such as participation, family, kinship – and underlining them all, community.

Young was particularly critical of the Attlee Government’s stance on industrial democracy. In a discussion pamphlet entitled Small Man, Big World he claimed that the biggest paradox of modern society is ‘that while democracy seems to require smallness, efficiency, promoted by the growth of science, often requires bigness’ [2]. In The Rise of the Meritocracy large industrial organisations, established in the first instance by socialists, were crucial to the pernicious distance which separated the powerful meritocrats from the powerless underclass. In this way Young was critical of the nationalisation schemes, the so-called public-board model, developed by Herbert Morrison in the 1930s and adopted by the Labour Government in 1945. He remained convinced that through social research the state could uncover the suppressed democratic desires of the workers and establish a more co-operative form of industry.

Increasingly, however, Young’s focus on building a decentralised socialist community in post-war Britain shifted away from the workplace and towards the family.  He became more and more interested in the mechanics of working-class communities, with their emphasis on the contribution of the family to social flourishing, and began to explore the notion of kinship as an alternative form of social organisation. In strengthening the family Young’s focus was on the housewife and the mother who Young saw as the chief victims of the disintegration and isolation of the individual associated with the destruction of the community at the hands of modernity and progress.

In studying these communities Young applied the anthropological conception of ‘matrilineage’ or a form of social solidarity centred on the mother figure. In many ways The Rise of the Meritocracy was a celebration of certain ‘feminine’ values, a story where its author imagined women winning the day. Feminist critics of Young, however, resented his romanticisation of patriarchal social arrangements in both The Rise of the Meritocracy and in his sociological research.

What united Young’s concerns about the direction of the post-war Labour Party was his emphasis on community. For Young community was made up of extended working class families, bound by mutualistic and kinship ties which were superior to the contractual relationships and hierarchical evaluations that marked a capitalist society. Through organisations like the Institute of Community Studies, and books like Family and Kinship in East London, he sought to conceptualise and propagate this highly political vision of community [3].

The Rise of the Meritocracy incorporated these themes of democracy, family and community and highlighted the potential consequences for the Labour Party if its socialism failed to evolve in light of sociological evidence. In Young’s fictional account the Labour Movement, renamed the Technicians Party, had a clear objective: to promote equality of opportunity and eliminate the evils of nepotism, inheritance and aristocracy. What it was less sure of, however, was what would replace these evils. Like Morris and Tawney before him, Young was encouraging British socialists to critically engage with the idea of equality itself rather than blindly discussing the policies designed to foster it.

Young was frustrated in 2001 at the misunderstandings generated by his satirical 1958 book, and, more importantly, at the marginalisation of concepts such as family and community amongst many post-war British socialists. But a glance at the early reception of his book offers a warning of what was to come. An anonymous review in The Times claimed Young was swimming against the tide. In a scientific world, with a country whose ‘economic survival depends on discovering and promoting the best brains’ there was ‘no getting away from the rise of the meritocracy’. Even the most prominent cultural critics of their day, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, seemed to dance around the fundamental issues. The latter rather prophetically compared Young’s book to Swift’s Modest Proposal but claimed that while Swift ‘could count on a degree of general recognition by his readers that the scheme was open to certain objections…I wish I could be sure Dr Young is equally fortunate’ [4].

The problem for Young was that the concept of meritocracy, if not the word, had a long history. If Young had left his book in a dusty drawer, another word would have emerged to explain the various phenomena – social mobility, equal opportunity, the decline of the aristocracy etc. – encapsulated in the term ‘meritocracy’. In 1958 Young’s nightmarish vision was only one among many. Liberals, conservatives and socialists alike had already adopted certain meritocratic conclusions about the nature of post-war British society and its direction of travel. Over the course of the next six decades the concept of meritocracy would be picked up by political ideologies ranging from the scientific, dynamic social democracy of Harold Wilson to the entrepreneurial conservatism associated with Margaret Thatcher. Political figures from these diverse traditions found in meritocracy a concept which helped them grapple with the central dilemma of post-war Western Europe: the need for experts, or an elite, in a democratic society. The concept has been appropriated, contested and fundamentally changed in the course of its long ideological career.

As Jo Littler has highlighted, in contemporary Britain the neo-liberal conception of meritocracy is little more than a smokescreen for a rapacious plutocracy. Considering the Brexit vote and Theresa May’s near-failure at the General Election, with a conservative message which placed meritocracy at its heart, the concept appears in danger of becoming extinct. A history of this elusive concept, however, highlights its flexibility and durability. Perhaps it is time for those on the left to finally heed Young’s warnings and consider what type of equality they want, rather than simply the means to get there. Meritocracy is not only too thin a concept to heal national divisions in the wake of the Brexit vote or challenge the rampant inequality generated by neo-liberal capitalism, it also makes the classless society desired by generations of socialist thinkers harder to reach.

[1] Young, M. (1994) ‘Introduction to the Transaction Edition’, The Rise of the Meritocracy, London: Transaction. 2nd Edition, pp xi-xvii.
[2] Young, M. (1983) ‘Small Man, Big World’ in his Social Scientist as Innovator, Cambridge, MA. Abt Books, pp195-209.
[3] See Butler, L. (2015) ‘Michael Young, the Institute of Community Studies, and the Politics of Kinship.’ Twentieth Century British History, 26 (2): pp. 203-24.
[4] Barker, P. (1995) ‘The Ups and Downs of Meritocracy’ in G. Dench, T. Flower and K. Gavron (eds.) Young at Eighty: The Prolific Public Life of Michael Young, Manchester: Cancarnet Press, pp153-62.


David Civil is an AHRC Midlands3Cities-funded doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Nottingham. His research explores the changing nature of political ideologies in post-war Britain and their interaction with the concept of meritocracy. He completed his Masters in Modern History at the University of Warwick where his research explored the political thought of British sociologist Michael Young.

Image: Samuel Zeller from Unsplash

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