Who knew that children go to school in September? Who guessed that hundreds of thousands of students head to universities where they – and easily shocked readers should look away – strive with every fibre of their being to mingle with each other as vigorously as they can? What clairvoyant might have predicted that, when the government offered the public cut-price restaurant meals at the taxpayers’ expense, the public would gobble them up? Or that, when the prime minister urged workers to go back to their offices and save Pret a Manger, a few brave souls would have returned to their desks and risked having “dulce et decorum est pro Pretia mori” carved on their gravestones?
You may have expected trouble, but Baroness Dido Harding was flabbergasted. The complaint from MPs that the rise in Covid cases was “entirely predictable” baffled the head of the NHS test-and-trace programme. Nobody “was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the course of the last few weeks,” she said.
Harding could not see a foreseeable crisis because she has no qualifications for running a public health service in a national emergency. She’s in post because she is a Tory peer and supporter of the governing regime. Far from firing her, ministers have promoted Harding to head their new National Institute for Health Protection. She didn’t apply for the post, she admitted to parliament. The institute is not a meritocracy, whose jobs are filled in open competition. Harding was a political appointee to a role you might think demands specialist knowledge.
The baroness may look like a relic from Britain before William Gladstone insisted in 1854 that the civil service should award jobs on merit, but don’t be fooled. Harding is a modern figure, at home in the age of Trump and Johnson. A defining feature of the authoritarian governments that are stamping down on peoples around the world is that they reward their supporters with jobs in public service that were once reserved for men and women who knew what they were doing. There’s more than calculated payoffs involved, I believe. Strongmen are weak men who want to be surrounded by sycophants who will not make them uncomfortable with hard truths.
Arguments against meritocracy used to come from the left. As long ago as 1958, Michael Young, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, warned that we were creating a cold and arrogant society where people at the top felt they deserved their success because they had achieved it on merit. As for the “losers” at the bottom of the heap, they had no one to blame but themselves. Young was true to his anti-meritocratic principles, incidentally. When his son Toby Young missed the grades for Oxford University, his father phoned the tutors at Brasenose College, who agreed to let the brat in as a favour.
The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has a book on the same theme, The Tyranny of Merit, out this week. Sandel follows Thomas Frank and the best American leftwing writers in saying the mantra that “if you work hard and play by the rules” is a fraud. Economic mobility in the US (and the UK) has stalled, and promises of a career open to all talents regardless of birth, sex or ethnicity leave a bitter taste in countries where the rich can buy advantages for their children the rest cannot contemplate.
I don’t want to stop you reading it but Sandel misses the darkness in the modern world. The attack on the false promises of meritocracy could mean more emphasis on the dignity of labour, on honouring and rewarding the people who never went to university but whose work matters more when the crunch comes than the work of many who did – as the Covid crisis is proving. But the friends of Baroness Harding have their own vision of an anti-meritocratic society, and far more power to make it a reality.
I was struck when interviewing the historian Anne Applebaum by her understanding that the alternative to a meritocracy can be the one-party state. In Russia, Hungary and Poland, where Applebaum lives, promotion does not depend on merit but on dog-like obedience to the ideology of the ruling elite. Here, the Brexit campaign prepared the ground for political loyalty tests for public servants in the UK. Vote Leave accused wholly independent bodies of being the “paid-up propaganda arm of the European commission” when they told no more than the truth about the damage Brexit would bring to the public finances. In government, it continued behaving like a Stalinist commissar hunting out real and imagined thought crimes. Civil servants were arbitrarily labelled as remainers or leavers. The “remainers” were put on a “shit list” and leavers promoted regardless of their qualifications. We now have as trade envoy an Australian prime minister who was such an incompetent his own party brought him down, a national security adviser with no experience of national security and Harding.
Journalists cite the failures of her business career: at TalkTalk she presided over the loss of the financial and personal details of more than 150,000 customers. “Failing upwards” is hardly novel in business, however. The worst companies are like authoritarian states, whose bosses want senior staff to be flunkeys who don’t speak out of turn. Harding has replicated the business model at the NHS test-and-trace service. A leak to the Health Service Journal showed senior management was stuffed with ex-executives from Jaguar Land Rover, Travelex, Waitrose and, inevitably, TalkTalk. Only one member of its executive committee has a background in public health. No wonder we cannot get tests when we need them.
“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally,” said John Maynard Keynes. The Johnson administration lives to prove the truth of his words. It is abolishing meritocracy not to create a fairer society but a public administration that rewards courtiers who never speak truth to power.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist