Let's start with Grammar Schools. Under May the British educational system will be neatly segregated. If you are sufficiently well off you will be able to pay tuition fees for private education and those fees will continue to be subsidised by attracting charitable status. If you are rather less well off then you will be able to move to an area that has a grammar school and pay for tutors to put your 10 year old through nightly extra rote learning in order to pass the entry test. The 70% of children who don't get into the good school will have to cope as best they can in schools where everyone feels alienated from education because they've been defined as a failure at everything at the age of 11. A few children from poor backgrounds will be able to join the rich kids in order to raise up the overall standard in the best schools and create an atmosphere of healthy competition for success. Presumably this will leave the other schools coping with an unhealthy atmosphere of failure. A comprehensive school can stream kids by ability allowing them to be good at one subject and slower to learn another. It can allow them to move easily between steams as their talents change. Instead we are to judge our children at the age of 11 after which their future will be determined. Apparently that is meritocracy.
Then let us consider the housing situation. The average price of a house in the UK in 2016 is just short of £214,000. Let's assume that a young person who has made it through the education system and got to university solely on their own merits wishes to join the house buying democracy that May wishes to promote. Without any family support and working hard at a series of part time jobs they might just be able to afford to pay their living expenses and emerge from University with debts of £27,000 for their fees. If they are to buy their own home solely by their own efforts they will need to start paying this off and put aside money for a deposit. If the mortgage company is working to sensible margins then it will be prepared to lend our young person of merit three times their salary and ask for 10% as a deposit. That means they will need to start paying off their student load, accumulate a £20,000 deposit and earn over £60,000 before they would be able to buy an average property. Let's be generous and say that they live in a rare part of the country where you can find a starter home at around half the price. The numbers then become £10,000 and £30,000. The average graduate salary is around £20,000 a year. It is therefore a very rare person indeed that can make it through the system from the working classes and start their own family in their own home without significant financial help from their family. It you were brought up in care in the inner city forget it. You get to try and bring your family up on an insecure six months tenancy in a cheap area where the schools mean your kids will struggle in one of the new secondary modern schools. That's meritocracy for you.
This might not matter so much if we lived in a relatively equal society. But we don't any more. Every year since the mid 1970s the rich have got a larger and larger share of the economic cake and the poor have got less. The top 1% of earners in the UK collected around 5% of national income in 1970. By 2010 it was up to 15%. (Pickety, Capital, p316). It is not entirely clear how this group in society improved their merits quite so radically in this period or what those at the bottom of society did that was so very lacking in merit.
Whatever it was the trend has continued. Since the 2008 crash the people at the bottom of society in the UK and the US have not seen any real increase in their earnings (See Stiglitz, The Great Divide). The few small improvements there have been to national income have all gone to the very richest. In a meritocracy you would assume that this must be due to some massive increase in the value of their contribution to society. This is a touch difficult to believe. Given that the 2008 crash was entirely caused by the reckless behaviour of the very richest in our society we are entitled to question their merits. Given that the Conservative party introduced the extreme de-regulation of banking which caused that crash we might be entitled to question their merits as well. Since Labour cheered on the boom and presided over the bust whilst their leader told us he was putting an end to boom and bust I can understand why a meritocracy might also limit the earnings of politicians from their party. What I can't understand is that in a meritocracy the teachers would be told that they had to take a pay cut to solve a problem they didn't cause. Or that doctors and nurses took the same pay cut. Or that local government employees who had played no part in creating the problem should lose their jobs and watch the services they had helped to create destroyed.
The truth is we don't live in a meritocracy any more. We live in the most stratified and ossified society of my life time. Hard work and talent can occasionally get you to the top from a tough start in life. But not as often as in the past. Not as easily. Instead positions are occupied by the comfortably educated elite who have inherited enough money to live well. Frightening few of these people have ever actually met a poor person and even fewer have the faintest idea what it is like to struggle to earn a living on a zero hours contract in an insecure rented home in the inner city.
No wonder a lot of people are angry. No wonder people are starting to look to extreme politicians from all sides of the political spectrum for their solutions. No wonder it was so easy to persuade the majority of voters that it would be better to go back to the old days and to get them to vote for it by telling lies about what leaving the EU would mean.
The shame is that on one level those who voted for nostalgia and a return to the old days were right. In one sense it really would be better to go back to the past. Back then the deeply Conservative Winston Churchill made sure that the top rate of taxation never went below 85%, invested in health and education and competed to build as many council houses as possible. Compare that to the policies of politicians today and you'll find Churchill comes out as to the left of Corbyn on taxation.
It would be even better to go forward to the future on the basis of a genuine meritocracy. Give every child a chance to prove themselves by investing in decent education in our inner cities. Give everyone a decent place to live by investing in building small sustainable council houses instead of letting developers rip up the green belt to construct yet more large profitable executive homes. Invest in creating a successful economy by getting the country into the sustainable technologies of the future. And whilst you are at it put an end to tax dodging by asking a jury to judge whether a corporation has paid a reasonable contribution on its UK earnings.
That's my idea of how to create a meritocracy. You may notice a few small differences between that vision and Theresa May's.