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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: Harry Smith

Austerity Bites

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – my latest review in the Guardian.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933”.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”.…

Latest writing

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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