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THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War

PETER MANDLER, 2020

Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Tag Archives: BBC

Twice Bottled Grief: the defiant life of Tony Garnett

Unlike Ken Loach, his friend and frequent collaborator, Tony Garnett remains a shadowy figure in the story of British radical film-making – yet has been just as vital, responsible for a string of pioneer productions from Cathy Come Home and Kes to Law and Order and This Life. Reflecting on some of the emotional reasons for his relatively low public profile, he comes to the conclusion that it is because “I didn’t want to lie”.

At one level, this makes complete sense: for much of Garnett’s life, his tragic family story was deeply buried. What this impressive and moving memoir shows is that his approach to almost every aspect of his political and professional life has been marked by a refusal of even the most ordinary, socially acceptable levels of mendacity.

A ferocious sense of purpose – born of the alchemy of emotional pain, high intelligence and creative ambition – powers the many overlapping narratives at work here. At its simplest, Garnett’s memoir gives us a spare and cogent account of his life as a cineaste, fighting for the right to make original work from within the establishment, largely the BBC but also Hollywood.

Born in Birmingham into a large, self-confident and loving working-class family (a lost world he evokes beautifully), he had his life chances transformed by the achievements of the postwar welfare state. Garnett then arrived at the BBC at the beginning of the Sixties – what today looks like the creative heyday of the corporation: a time when a fresh young generation of risk-takers was given its head.

Figures such as Loach and Garnett – who began life as an actor – were determined to bust through the stuffy conventions of ossified, upper-class, mostly period TV drama to capture working-class lives out in the world. Often they did this literally: trailing actors, most of them not professionally trained, in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible, capturing naturalistic speech and action on location, using only a “16mm handheld, blimped camera”.

They faced formidable obstacles. Films that showed the reality of backstreet abortion or homelessness were attacked publicly by such figures as Mary Whitehouse, whom Garnett rather admired as “a fine debater that no one could safely underestimate”.Possibly more frustrating was the resistance he encountered inside the BBC. There are wonderful portraits here of a parade of senior managers, from the director general Alasdair Milne, who parried Garnett with subtle charm and a fine single malt, to the choleric, red-haired controller of BBC1 Bryan “Ginger” Cowgill, who, objecting to a single use of “f***” in the 1975 serial Days of Hope, produced by Garnett and directed by Loach, exploded, declaring without the slightest self-consciousness or irony: “If you think you can f***ing well say ‘f***’ on my channel, you’ve got another f***ing think [sic] coming.”…

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How politics lost touch with everyday life

Early on in his elegiac study of how our literary and aesthetic past might animate our political future, Marc Stears singles out DH Lawrence’s “wonderful essay” Insouciance, written in 1928, which he believes embodies “the vision that animates this book”. In the essay, Lawrence describes a meeting with two elderly ladies who try to draw him into a conversation about “Benito Mussolini and the potential threat he posed to the world” as he watches two men mow the lawn of the hotel where they are all staying. For Lawrence, “the worst ogress couldn’t have treated me more villainously. I don’t care about right and wrong, politics, fascism… There was a direct sensuous contact between me, the lake, mountains, cherry trees, mowers… All this was cut off by the fatal shears of the abstract word fascism… the little old lady… beheaded me, and flung my head into abstract space.”

It may be difficult for a modern reader to agree with Lawrence that he is the true representative of what he calls “actual living”. But both Lawrence and Stears are trying to make the larger point that it is in our daily life that the most significant experiences reside and that politics is too often unhelpfully broad-brush, arrogantly distant from the things that really matter. At the same time, we are alerted to the central problem of any study that ambitiously seeks to reclaim the values of everyday life. Whose everyday life? Whose values?

Stears is an academic, policymaker (currently director of the Sydney Policy Lab) and former speech writer for Ed Miliband, and it soon becomes clear that his ideas spring from cherished memories of a happy Welsh childhood. Celebrations of such familial and communal values, he argues, can be found in the writings of Lawrence, George Orwell, JB Priestley and Dylan Thomas (particularly in Thomas’s Under Milk Wood), as well as the images of the photographer Bill Brandt and the artist Barbara Jones. Taken together, Stears argues, their work represents a generous if unselfconscious social solidarity that sustained the best of Britishness through the interwar years and the Second World War, and found its apotheosis in the 1951 Festival of Britain: a guiding vision that could once again inspire our fractured nation.

Stears’s quest is interesting and bold, but his attempt to unearth a consistent theme across a medley of early 20th-century literary works and then to apply them to the pressing problems of 21st-century Britain soon becomes fraught – as he acknowledges – with contradictions.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.

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