The Two Cultures 2017: Merit versus Brilliance

David Davis’ sensational confession that he hadn’t done the Brexit impact assessments and in fact hadn’t bothered to read the halfbaked document pulled together after it became clear he couldn’t get away without releasing something gave me an insight. There is a huge cultural divide in the country between two forces we could call the Culture of Merit and the Culture of Brilliance.

I call the first one the Culture of Merit fully accepting Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy. In fact the Culture of Meritocracy would be as good but too long. The merit culture, like the meritocracy, prizes credentialism, exams, and laborious success. Not surprisingly, it confuses people who triumph over real injustice with those who only triumph over exams, launching from a high tower of privilege. One of its flaws is that it analogises the Cambridge don’s Cambridge kid with the striver who rises out of poverty. It does, however, believe in something like the labour theory of value. Worthwhile achievements come, above all, from effort. Effort, in its turn, confers worth. The Merit Culture’s tropes are quantitative research, evidence, credentials, and detail.

The Culture of Brilliance denies this. I call it a culture of brilliance in the sense Corey Robin and Irving Howe use it here, and re-reading the post it strikes me that I am perpetrating it now. It believes that success is a matter of personal and spontaneous genius. It values felicitious answers, quick responses, and narrative excitement. Too much work is a tell of mediocrity. Many of its members have the elite credentials Merit worships, but they claim to hold them cheap. If the Merit Culture denies the advantages so many of its members start off with, the Culture of Brilliance denies how much work goes into its supposed spontaneity and lightness. The Brilliance Culture’s tropes are wit, rhetoric, authenticity, and outrageousness.

This is Britain: a culture almost as textual as imperial China. The two cultures naturally express themselves as literary forms.

The Merit Culture’s ideal type is the civil service briefing or the hard news report, the reduction of a complex matter into a minimal selection of options expressed in elegantly minimal prose. The vital value is concision, but the writer has reduced a mass of information to this capstone expression. The document might be large, but this speaks of a much vaster apparatus of scholarship off-stage.

The Brilliance Culture’s ideal type is the hot take. The vital values are outrageousness and entertainment, the expansion of a trivial matter or an important one treated as trivial into a maximum output of verbals. What matters is the wise crack, the long word, the funny demonstration. It might even be a survival of an oral tradition – certainly I’ve heard spontaneous talkers and jokers who have the same kind of freestyle lightness, with the important distinction that everyone knows they are bullshitting. It is deadly serious to express your lack of seriousness.

The two cultures sound like some other great divides. C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures thesis saw one between the humanities and the sciences. Ours runs at right-angles to Snow’s. Matt Ridley, for example, is both a product of the scientific culture and a prize Brilliantist. Kicking this around on Twitter, people reminded me of Cavaliers vs. Roundheads and Catholics vs. Protestants. The Merit Culture definitely has a smell of the Protestant ethic to it, but it could be Jesuit just as well.

It was fashionable a little while ago to complain about politicians who had high academic qualifications and usually also government experience. They were out of touch, inauthentic. Instead we needed people with more story. By now we should see that this was a call for more Brilliance versus the Meritists with their tiresome spreadsheets. No doubt they had a point, but you bet Caroline Flint – to pick a Meritist out of the air – would have staffed those Brexit impact assessments to the knife.

Here is a short glossary of recent politicians:

Theresa May: Merit, an ex-Bank of England manager and payments systems IT consultant.
David Davis: Brilliance, a man who expects to finish everything in an afternoon.
Philip Hammond: Merit, known as Spreadsheet Phil at the MOD.
Boris Johnson: Brilliance, almost the paradigm example.
David Cameron: He thought he’d be quite good at it. Brilliance, of course.
Gordon Brown: More Merit it doesn’t get.
Tony Blair: Brilliance all the way along the…journey.
Margaret Thatcher: Merit, merit, merit from the workaholic Beta Chemist.
Andrea Leadsom: No merit there; got to be brilliance, I guess?
Jeremy Corbyn: DISCUSS.

I sympathise with May here. As a control- and data-obsessed Meritist she has the job of trying to corral the flighty and always-inspired Brilliants beneath her into a big reassuring spreadsheet. The classic way to combine the two is a verbally fecund Brilliant supported and also kept in check by a whole cabinet of Meritists. (The Sons of Martha is on point here.) Or else a Meritist core flanked by a screen of Brilliants, which I guess was Attlee’s model.

26 Comments on "The Two Cultures 2017: Merit versus Brilliance"


  1. To understand Corbyn you need to enter a world where you put in the hard work to win a committee majority, not to pass an exam; where you do the reading to keep on top of the shifting positions of the PLO, not the Bank of England; where you stay up late to prepare for a tricky interview with the Colombian Ambassador, not with a promotion board. Seen in that light he’s self-evidently a Merit – just as Galloway’s a Brilliant – and just as self-evidently has no use for conventional Merit career paths and reference-points. (Which is why the commentariat still don’t know what to do with him, of course.)

    Benn, I think, was a rather middling Merit who reinvented himself as a Brilliant, and got more and more Brilliant as he got older; Livingstone similarly, although without the ‘middling’. In both cases (and indeed Galloway’s) Brilliance seems to have been a bit of a Brain Eater.

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    1. Merit vs Brilliance on the hard-left is a fun game for leftist trainspotters – SWP = Brilliance, Militant Tendency = Merit etc.
      Some of the splits in Momentum maybe seem a bit clearer with this framing, also?

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  2. To understand Corbyn you need to enter a world where you put in the hard work to win a committee majority, not to pass an exam; where you do the reading to keep on top of the shifting positions of the PLO, not the Bank of England; where you stay up late to prepare for a tricky interview with the Colombian Ambassador, not with a promotion board

    I appreciate that this is what a Merit in Corbyn’s world would do. But is it what Corbyn did?

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    1. As I said to someone on the twitters, I’d like to believe Corbs spent the thirty-odd years on the back benches woodshedding up his chops – but then you look at the Brexiters, the other significant group of MPs who were excluded from respectable politics for a decade or more.

      A lot of people actually believed they spent all their time being experts on the European Union – remember Bill Cash and his pocket Maastricht? – but when the whistle blew, it turned out they spent it fantasising about what they’d do with the treasure when they found it. Rather than using the time for self-improvement they used it for ideological entrenchment and ignorance-as-strategy.

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      1. See also Dan “Dan” Hannan, who somehow got to be regarded as the intellectual titan of Euroscepticism (“likes to read Shakespeare once a week”, per the Graun’s profile), when his political career began with CIB stunts at Oxford and has lasted because of insulation from direct accountability, first through the think-tank network, then courtesy of the EuroParl’s list system.

        Brilliantism in Britain often shows up with the public-school ability to recite lumps of blank verse from memory — see Hitchins, C. and Hitchins, P. — and in turn gets tied to the cod-history of Our Man In Deepest Foreign, armed only with his powers of recall, a weather-appropriate suit and a cricket bat, yet able to turn locals into productive subjects of the Empire.

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  3. The thought also arises that this is actually more like a cultural divide between the Conscientious and the Lazy, and the only Lazy people we see are the ones who also have enough bullshitting ability to succeed despite not doing any work. There is a huge submerged population of Lazy people who have all the characteristics of David Davis except his ability to bullshit, and are therefore deservedly unemployed.

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    1. Similarly, there are a lot of Meriters out there who absolutely are like the Brilliants think they are – mediocre plodders with nothing interesting to offer but broadening their backsides. They are impossible to get rid of because in the end, mediocrity is not a crime and they keep showing up.

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      1. “They are impossible to get rid of because in the end, mediocrity is not a crime and they keep showing up.”

        Don’t underestimate those qualities. There is nothing that cannot be achieved if you have enough mediocre people who keep showing up. Ask Zhukov.

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  4. Very interesting.

    An example I recently found very interesting was the BBC interviewer (and press generally) attitude to the idea that Labour Shadow Ministers might turn up with an iPad full of figures and refer to it when asked various questions.

    This annoyed me not just because I’m probably Merit over Brilliance, but because I’m not a sodding Luddite. Really, I think you could produce a whole analysis of UK productivity failings based around the way a Culture of Brilliance disdains various tools…

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    1. remember when it was terribly unfair and unreasonably modern for Labour MPs to use pagers or, refined shudder, text messaging? then the Great PAYG Christmas of 1999 struck and all the hacks got their Nokia 6230s, and we didn’t hear anyone whining about “beepers” again…

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        1. Yes, let’s also recall Cameron beat David Davis in part with a media (and party member) round of applause for giving a good speech without notes…

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  5. Pleasingly, this post is archetypal brilliance output. Insightful, obviously-true-once-you-have-seen-it but only superficially so.

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  6. Of course, the bizarre thing about Davis is (WSMNBTO) he has a degree from Warwick: ‘ BSc Joint Hons Molecular Science/Computer Science 1968–71)’ (and also says ‘he was one of the founding members of the student radio station, University Radio Warwick and he founded a men’s choir’ – radio is quite a geeky hobby in my experience).
    So there you go, a riposte to those who say we need more people with science / computing degrees running things.

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  7. ‘Theresa May: Merit, an ex-Bank of England manager and payments systems IT consultant.
    David Davis: Brilliance, a man who expects to finish everything in an afternoon.’
    Even on its own (superficial) terms, this is wrong. David Davis slogged his way through the TA version of SAS selection, which it really is not possible to pass without months of sustained effort. (Yeah, I know, weekend warriors, yadda yadda. Anybody who thinks that line is a good argument is invited to get fit enough, and good enough at map reading, to do one of the shorter routes across Brecon in the first week of selection and then get back to me.)

    And Theresa May’s entire handling of the Brexit negotiations until now has been based on ignoring and even forcing out those members of the Civil Service, like the hapless Ivan Rogers, who were trying to tell her inconvenient, but also pretty bloody basic, truths. ‘No, Prime Minister, we can’t just choose which pieces of European legislation we’ll obey. No, Prime Minister, there isn’t technology that will enable us to leave the Customs Union whilst having a frictionless Northern Irish border. No, Prime Minister, we won’t gain a strategic advantage over the EU-27 by activating Article 50, especially if we waste time on an election campaign after that. Prime Minister, are you really sure we can credibly threaten to leave the single market without a trade deal..?’ And so on, to the point of despair and often of resignation.

    Davis is an underinformed bullshitter but so, on the evidence of the negotiations so far, is May. And that’s despite the fact that both of them spent at least part of their earlier lives in cultures which valued preparation and effort.

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    1. Cruising on long-past achievements? Brilliance as fuck, I think. I’d also point both you and John to Phil Edwards’ comment about Tony Benn. Swapping hard work for witty anecdotes over the years is far from rare.

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    2. “David Davis slogged his way through the TA version of SAS selection, which it really is not possible to pass without months of sustained effort.”

      Not _now_. But he did it in 1967 or so, and I wonder how lengthy and rigorous it was back then. (Certainly a bit earlier, when a member of my family joined, selection apparently took as long as was required for David Stirling or Blair Mayne to decide whether or not you were a decent chap. But those were different days.)
      Selection might have been rigorous in the late 60s, but it certainly can’t have been a long process back then – he joined in order to earn money while doing his A-level retakes, which he passed, going up to Warwick in autumn 1968 at the age of 19, at which point he presumably left. So he can’t have joined before he got the bad news about his first set of A-levels, presumably around the end of August 1967…

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  8. Person X has no record of sustained effort and preparation? He’s a Brilliant. Person X does in fact have a record of sustained effort and preparation? Ah, but you see, he’s still a Brilliant because *that was in the past*. But Person Y has a record of sustained effort and preparation that was also in the past? She’s a Merit, because reasons.

    The phrase ‘unfalsifiable theory’ just popped into my head- I can’t think why.

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  9. Coincidentally, I just read Simon Kuper’s latest FT article, which puts forward a different theory of why the current political leadership in the US and UK are quite so awful. Kuper thinks that variety of life experience might actually have something to do with the quality of political leadership. (So do I.) Specifically, he thinks that politicians may be more likely to believe that any politician with first-hand experience of poverty or war (or illness, which he doesn’t mention, though FDR is a classic example here) is more likely to regard government as something that has a massive impact on the lives of the governed, and so to behave responsibly.

    ‘But both countries [the US and UK] have now fallen into the hands of well-off baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 — the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history. These people had no formative experiences, only TV shows. They never expected anything awful or unknown to happen. They went into politics mostly for kicks. The paradigmatic shift was from George HW Bush (born 1924) to his son (born 1946). Like Trump, Bush Jr spent much of his early presidency on vacation. Then 9/11 jolted him into frenzied activity: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    ‘It’s often said that today’s politicians have no experience outside politics, but they do. Bush Jr ran a baseball club, Boris Johnson wrote funny columns, and Trump played a successful businessman on television. Along the way they learnt a skill their predecessors mostly lacked: performing on mass media.

    ‘Then came populism, which validated amateurism. No need for “experts” — anyone could do the job. Thoughtful people who couldn’t bellow simplifications on TV drifted out of politics.

    ‘… So we’re left with an insouciant, inexperienced political class of mostly ageing white men. Thankfully, that will soon change. Everyone raised under baby-boomer rule has learnt that awful and unknown things can happen anytime. Brexit and Trump have mobilised a generation of young people, taught them that government matters, and shown that not screwing up is a lofty goal. Unprecedented numbers of US women — most of them born post boom — are now seeking election at every political level. In the Senate, there are about 10 times more female candidates than in 2014. They will have a generation’s worth of mess to clean up.’

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    1. This is good: It’s often said that today’s politicians have no experience outside politics, but they do. Bush Jr ran a baseball club, Boris Johnson wrote funny columns, and Trump played a successful businessman on television.

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  10. I just saw this quote from The Man without Qualities elsewhere:

    An impractical man–which he not only seems to be, but really is–will always be unreliable and unpredictable in his dealings with others. He will engage in actions that mean something else to him than to others, but he is at peace with himself about everything as long as he can make it all come together in a fine idea.

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  11. The OP features a video of Hilary Benn. In late 2015, Benn made a terrible HoC speech about Syria. It was terrible because it did not relate in any way to the real situation in Syria, and ignored a recently-published Foreign Affairs’ Committee report about Syria that said that the Committee could not find any trace of a UK policy on Syria.

    Yet Benn’s speech was praised as a brilliant speech by many newspaper commentators because it said that fascism was a bad thing. There is an on-going argument in the Labour Party about whether it was a terrible speech or a brilliant one.

    I suspect that Benn is quite capable of analysing what was happening in Syria, and good at analysing most situations in politics. There are, however, incentives to make vacuous speeches like the one about Syria because a politician is more likely to be praised for a vacuous one than for a thoughtful one.

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    1. Yes.
      So often in British politics “Brilliance” is a winning strategy, no matter how vacuous the foundations are, nor whether the things said are even actually believed by the person saying them. (c.f. BoJo)

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  12. This is correlated with class, isn’t it? Merit epitomises the stereotypical middle-class approach to getting ahead in a “deserving” and predictable way, while the upper classes prize Brilliance as more exciting and authentic, and consider swotting demeaning. Here as in so many other contexts (I’m thinking of Kate Fox’s Watching the English), there may be some overlap between upper-upper and lower-lower class attitudes.

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