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Saturday, Sep 18, 2021

Is Britain becoming more meritocratic than America?

Is Britain becoming more meritocratic than America?

It is certainly trying harder to reward ability, rather than money or connections
IN 1774 THOMAS PAINE left Britain for America to become a radical pamphleteer and revolutionary agitator. In “Common Sense”, published two years later, he explained why he had chosen to emigrate. Britain was built on heredity, a loathsome practice rooted in theft (William the Conqueror was the original bandit who stole the people’s land) and perpetuated by idiocy (what could be more absurd than giving a job to someone because of who their parents were?). “The artificial noble sinks into a dwarf before the noble of nature,” he said, and Britain was a land of artificial nobles. America, by contrast, was animated by the glorious principle of merit.

Paine’s argument has been a fixture of British thinking ever since. “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun,” George Orwell complained in 1941: “a land of snobbery and privilege”. In William Golding’s novel, “Rites of Passage”, published in 1980, a character laments that “Class is the British language”. And it is to America that the British habitually look for opportunity unencumbered by nonsense about parentage and the pronunciation of the letter “h”. Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s sang “Yankee Doodle” and waved the American flag. In the 1960s and 1970s, moderate leftists such as Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams wanted to make Britain more like America. British-American transplants like William James and T.S. Eliot were snobs; America attracted British radicals like W.H. Auden and Christopher Hitchens.

This contrast between hierarchical Britain and meritocratic America has always been exaggerated. America has no monarchy or House of Lords, but it has dynastic families such as the Adamses, Kennedys and Bushes. It has no equivalent of British aristocrats’ cut-glass vowels, but it has cliques such as the Boston Brahmins and the Proper Philadelphians, not to mention the Southern gentry. America gives ambassadorships to big party donors rather than professional diplomats, a practice the British abandoned in the mid-19th century. As president, Donald Trump was flagrantly nepotistic, relying on his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. But compared with the Bushes, Clintons and Kennedys, this was evolution, not revolution.

Social mobility stagnated in both countries as the winners from the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions consolidated their gains. But Britain is trying much harder than America to get it going once again. A combination of British angst and American complacency may be the beginning of a great reversal: Britain is becoming more meritocratic, even as America becomes less so.

True, two Old Etonians, David Cameron and johnson">Boris Johnson, recently made it to the top of the Conservative Party. But the number of MPs from modest backgrounds has been rising, especially with the conquest of northern constituencies in 2019. The Treasury, Foreign Office, Home Office and Department of Health are all led by the children of immigrants. In broadcast journalism, and arguably in business, an upper-class bray is increasingly a handicap.

The two countries’ differing trajectories are perhaps most obvious in education, especially in admissions to the universities that act as gatekeepers to the elite. A comparison of Oxford and Harvard is telling. Oxford is trying hard to attract poor and working-class applicants, and several of its colleges have introduced a “foundation year” to get them up to speed before they start degree courses. In 2020, 68% of the undergraduates it admitted, excluding those from overseas, had attended state schools. That was up from 62% in 2019, and 55% a decade ago.

This meritocratic push was aided by school reforms started in the 2000s by Labour governments, and continued by the Tories since 2010, which created schools in inner cities that offer education of the highest standard. One is Brampton Academy in Newham, a poor London borough, which draws most of its pupils from ethnic minorities. Last year it won 55 places in Oxford and Cambridge, more than Eton’s 48. Its sixth form is highly selective, and provides intensive coaching for Oxbridge entrance exams.

By contrast Harvard, like other elite American universities, practises plutocracy modified by affirmative action for African-American applicants and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic ones. The intention is to compensate for the terrible injustice of slavery and, more broadly, to find merit where it was once overlooked. But it is undermined by an almost wilful blindness to disadvantage that stems from class, not race. Harvard recruits more students from the richest 1% than the poorest 60%, discriminating in favour of relatives of faculty and alumni (known as “legacies”), star athletes and the “dean’s list”, which mysteriously tends to feature the offspring of politicians, celebrities and donors. “Holistic assessment” of candidates encourages CVs that bristle with boasts about pricey trips to Africa to help the poor. It boosts the well-connected, who can get supporting letters from impressive names. Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University calculates that three-quarters of successful white applicants in these favoured categories would have been rejected if they had been treated the regular way.
Changing places

And rather than creating institutions like Brampton Academy to prise open Harvard’s gates, America’s policymakers are dismantling elite public schools. Boston Latin School in Boston and Lowell High School in San Francisco, which have a fine record of getting their pupils into Ivy League universities, are being forced to drop entrance examinations and admit by lottery, which will probably mean an end to academic excellence.

Even as America’s ingrained belief that it is a meritocracy is taken as licence to behave in a flagrantly anti-meritocratic fashion, Britain’s anxiety about being class-bound seems to have made it hypersensitive to unearned privilege (excepting a few institutions granted special status, such as the monarchy). This anxiety may finally be producing positive results, rather than, as so often in the past, nothing more useful than self-doubt.
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