What if meritocracy is a bad idea and we're better off with hereditary politicians?
Euan Blair, son of the former Thatcherite Prime Minister Tony, has suggested that students are better off choosing apprenticeships rather than going to university.
The Times reports that Blair “issued the advice 21 years after his father pledged as prime minister to get half of young people into university and a few months after that target was met”.
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Blair is not a disinterested party, being “co-founder of White Hat, which matches bright school leavers with white-collar apprenticeships”, yet he can still be right.
The expansion of higher education was arguably one of the greatest mistakes of the late twentieth century, up there with house price inflation in its negative social impact. Like the housing bubble, it dates back to the Thatcher-Major regime; like the housing bubble, it has made it harder for young people to become “stakeholders” in society, as Blair senior would have put it. It has also left us more divided, and as others have suggested, the great Brexit split is in many ways one of town v gown.
When I entered secondary school, 15% of people went on to higher education; by the time I left, 35% did; now it’s much higher still. US economist Bryan Caplan has made the case against education, which lumbers people with debt, which in turn makes it harder for them to afford families. It has also led to great bitterness among a section of the population who have been led to believe they are joining an elite, an elite which doesn’t have space for them.
One reason Thatcher and co. liked university expansion was that they believed in meritocracy, and felt that a wider pool of students would increase competition and so bring about a more efficient and just society. But meritocracy has its great downsides, among them a rising pool of “left-behinds” and a decline in noblesse oblige.
It’s also probably true that meritocracy has not led to higher-quality politicians. Indeed meritocrats are arguably worse than hereditary rulers, since a hereditary class are more bound by the feeling that there is a pact between generations, and often have a stronger sense of service and less ambition. They might be less short-termist because their family is in for the long haul.
Labour’s “Red Princes”, for instance, seem to be better than the average of their cohort. Jack Straw’s son Will ran the Remain campaign, and although that was not successful, he is by all accounts a diligent and popular manager and lost partly because he was not willing to stretch the moral norms of politics in the way the Leave campaign were. That lack of ruthlessness is quite characteristic of an aristocracy in a liberal democracy.
Likewise, while five candidates fight over the Corbyn succession, in my opinion Stephen Kinnock would be a far stronger choice. The younger Kinnock has spoken very thoughtfully about bridging the Remain/Leave chasm, cares about bringing the country together and seems to be a good egg. Maybe if Euan Blair gets fed up with his current business he could have a go at politics — although I’m not sure his name would be a huge advantage in his father’s party these days.