“We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers!” shouted Donald Trump in his first address to Congress last month, before announcing that tighter immigration controls would take the form of a “merit-based” system.
Like so many before him, Trump was wrapping political reforms in the language of meritocracy, conjuring up the image of a “fair” system where people are free to work hard to activate their talent and climb the ladder of success.
Since becoming prime minister, Theresa May has also promised to make Britain “the world’s great meritocracy” (or, in The Sun’s phrase, a “Mayritocracy”). She reiterated this pledge when announcing her revival of the grammar schools system, abandoned in the 1960s. “I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege,” she proclaimed, “where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”
In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, many people noticed that the meritocracy they had been taught to believe in wasn’t working. The idea you could be anything you wanted to be, if only you tried hard enough, was increasingly hard to swallow. Even for the relatively pampered middle classes, jobs had dried up, become downgraded and over-pressured, debt had soared and housing was increasingly unaffordable.