James Bloodworth's book may be light enough to slip into your jacket pocket but its argument is a weighty one. Over 137 pages, The Myth of Meritocracy seeks to dismantle a notion that defined Margaret Thatcher's conservativism, was given a New Labour makeover by Tony Blair and now spills from the lips of David Cameron: that in our socially-mobile, aspirational Britain, anyone can get to top – if only they are willing to work.
He does so simply by pointing out the facts: like that only 7% of Britons are privately educated, 33% of British MPs went to private schools, along with 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List. That while in the 1990s, 80% of artists in the Top 40 went to state schools, in 2011, 60% of UK chart acts had been in paid education.
Bloodworth, a writer and former editor of Left Foot Forward, takes aim at his own profession in his short offering for Provocations, a series of short polemics curated by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. He cites statistics that show that 83% of journalists did some sort of internship before they got a job, and in 92% of cases they were not paid.
Budding journalists today are routinely asked to work for "exposure", even late in their careers – as evidenced by Bloodworth himself, who chastised the Huffington Post recently for asking him to write an article based on his book for free. (Full disclosure, Bloodworth is a regular columnist for IBTimesUK. We think he is paid well. He may disagree.)
'Workers vs shirkers'
Why does this all matter? Well, because despite politicians on both sides of the House of Commons routinely trotting out the mantra that government is here "for the workers not the shirkers" as it dismantles Britain's hard won welfare state, few members have any idea what that actually means.
Britain's elite – whether musicians, newspaper columnists, politicians or lawyers – either benefitted from private education and the networks that it provides or they were able to offer their work for free in the interests of securing a full-time job: or indeed, both. The idea that anyone can succeed in Britain with hard work alone is a myth – pull themselves up "by the bootstraps" – not only is the field far from level, the game is rigged from the start.
A book like this could easily come across as bitter, even (if penned by an angry Corbynista) hysterical, but Bloodworth's is neither – it is a well formulated and eminently sensible argument that is bolstered by sharp and engaging prose. Unlike other columnists on the British left he does not shed crocodile tears from a place of privilege. Indeed, he recently quit his full-time position to work low-paid jobs as research for his new book.
Critics will argue that The Myth of Meritocracy's failing is that it does not really present an alternative. We cannot prevent inherited wealth (and all that it buys) any more than we can stop editors giving jobs to their friends – or their friends' children. Britain isn't fair – indeed, life isn't fair – and attempts to try and engineer economic or social parity have nearly always ended in chaos.
But what The Myth of Meritocracy does is more important than laying out a manifesto for change: it shows us how a false premise – that of shirkers vs workers, of aspiration vs apathy, of the undeserving vs deserving poor – started as an idea in Thatcher's Britain and has become an ideology in Cameron's. A trickle became a raging torrent, one that now defines political discourse in this country and is accepted, normalised and unchallenged.
In 2016, when the politics of hate and division is exploited by both the Nigel Farages and Donald Trumps of this world and those that should know better – when words are cheap – we should fear the success with which this lie has become truth, simply because the liars told it again, and again, and again. In that, Bloodworth's book is not only an appeal to accept the reality of what Britain is in 2016, but a warning about what it could become.
The Myth of Meritocracy is out now by Biteback Publishing. Buy it here.