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.
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) December 7, 2017
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.