On the ongoing Peter Saunders saga, and the UK election

Now that everyone has had a good laugh at Social Development Minister Paula Bennett for mixing up which Peter Saunders she had actually appointed to advise her welfare reform panel, we can move on. Yes, Bennett has indeed appointed the bloke who writes paranoid, Islamophobic science fiction novels and who sees a link between social class and low intelligence. That Peter Saunders is her go-to guy on welfare reform.

Since the saga began with some research I did into Saunders, Bennett should be advised that her appointee has now responded. He is not amused. On his website, Saunders has tried to once again explain why he still thinks – just as he did in the 1994 book review that I cited – that there is a link between low intelligence, the working class, and being a welfare recipient. This time, he tries to explain why, in his view, many jobseekers on the dole are so stupid that it is a waste of time, money and energy for the state to try and retrain them.

I’ll try and present as much of his argument as I can in his own words:

“People in higher occupational classes are brighter than people in lower class positions….Employers try to fill jobs with the most able candidates….[Therefore, since] people are to a large extent recruited to occupations on the basis of their ability, then people of higher ability will tend to be found in the higher skilled and better-paid positions in society. Evidence from IQ testing confirms this: in America, accountants and lawyers have average IQ scores of 128, compared with 122 for teachers, 109 for electricians, 96 for truck drivers and 91 for miners and farmhands.”

Having displayed this touching faith in the accuracy and cultural neutrality of IQ testing, Saunders ploughs on. Over the course of the last three decades, he points out, low skilled jobs have been shed in many developed countries. “What are governments to do about this?” he asks. “The problem is that one-sixth of the population has an IQ under 85… Pushing them through government training courses makes politicians feel good, but it is not going to turn them into skilled IT workers. Somehow, we have to find new, useful, but less challenging tasks for them to do.”

Having dismissed the value of retraining programmes for welfare beneficiaries on welfare, Saunders then proceeds to criticize measures to improve the equality of opportunity to tertiary education. Again, this is a wasted effort, in his view. To repeat: these are the sort of views that Paula Bennett wants her expert panel on welfare reform to heed. We should be very worried.

What in fact, are we to make of Bennett and her affection for this Peter Saunders guy ? Like Ayn Rand once used to do, Saunders writes bad novels about what he feels to be disturbing social trends. Therefore, it seems apt that he and his ilk were the subject of a much better cautionary tale written 50 years ago by Michael Young, called The Rise of the Meritocracy. Looking back in 2001 in a Guardian article, Young expressed his dismay that Tony Blair had taken the term ‘meritocracy’ seriously as a badge of merit, and had skipped the fact that Young coined the term with satirical intent to attack the very notion dear to Blair (and to Saunders) that those who occupy top positions in society have necessarily got there on merit. Here’s Young :

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values.

With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.

The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

The more controversial prediction and the warning followed from the historical analysis. I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment.

They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.

That process of sieving via a culturally loaded system of educational rules and rewards is a stinging rebuttal to Saunders – and to the labeling process central to the national standards regime that has been promoted by Bennett’s colleague, Anne Tolley. In almost any field you care to name – and journalism is a good example – a dubious array of qualifications and barriers have been erected to defend existing privilege and to control the process of social recruitment. Having defined the terms of entry to enshrine their own interests, the meritocracy can happily consign everyone else to the outer margins of society – as if these tests were indeed a true measure of worth and ability, and as if their own success reflected their moral and intellectual superiority.

As Young says, there are also political consequences to the entrenchment of the meritocracy.

“It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that. They have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.

Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and the powerful in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry between the haves and the have-nots.

With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.

In the past, the Labour Party contained those exceptional figures like Aneurin Bevin in Britain – or Norman Kirk in New Zealand – who left school early, but managed by sheer will and ability to succeed. The certification process now required for social advancement is closing the door on many able members of the working class and treating them as – a la Saunders – as barely human, when worth is measured by the array of IQ and attitudinal testing. Young concludes by describing the outcome of this sorting process :

In the new social environment, the rich and the powerful have been doing mighty well for themselves. They have been freed from the old kinds of criticism from people who had to be listened to. This once helped keep them in check – it has been the opposite under the Blair [and Brown] government.

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.

So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as the book also predicted, all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited. Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied.

As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes, and without a bleat from the leaders of the party who once spoke up so trenchantly and characteristically for greater equality.

No surprise then that Peter Saunders – who appears to believe that such processes of self gratification can even be scientifically rationalized – should have been appointed to Bennett’s social welfare reform panel.


Nick Clegg’s terrible options

On election night, as the reality of the hung Parliament began to sink in, the Liberal-Democratic leader Nick Clegg warned everyone – his rivals, the media, the public, and one suspects, the markets – to be patient. Because this may take a while to sort out.

For someone who has been called a kingmaker, Clegg faces quite terrible options – with none of them delivering him what he would like. He cannot for instance, accept Labour leader Gordon Brown’s offer of a referendum on proportionate representation. A referendum plus Gordon Brown as Prime Minister would be poisonous for the very issue dearest to the Liberal-Democrats. On those terms, the public would flock to the Conservatives, who would be given a golden platform from which to argue that their own self interested hostility to proportional representation was really the peoples’ will. Would you buy a new voting system from the man who brought Gordon Brown back from the dead?

Clegg has to deal with the Conservatives. From them, he needs a commitment to a PR referendum. Yet at this point, a significantly weakened David Cameron cannot afford to promise him one, and risk the wrath of the already rebellious Tory grandees who think him a rather spineless piece of ectoplasm. Cameron, remember, lost a lot of his own protégés in this election – and as many have already noted, the politics of minority government will shift the tactical focus to Parliament, and away from Cameron’s think-tank of bright boys who somehow managed to blow a sure thing in this election. Promising a referendum on the voting system would be a bridge too far for Cameron, in his current delicate state.

So chances are, Clegg will be very disappointed by his talks with Cameron. Electoral reform aside, the main risk for the Lib-Dems from colluding with the Tories has to do with the parlous state of the British economy. In any deal he strikes with Cameron, Clegg has to build in safeguards on policy, and on gradualist timetables for that policy to be enacted. Otherwise, Clegg will quickly become an ineffectual partner in crime with the Tories in the kind of budget-balancing savagery now unfolding in Greece.

What Clegg needs is for Cameron to snub a reasonable request by the Lib-Dems to safeguard the elderly, the poor and the middle class while that Tory reform agenda is being enacted. If that came on top of a refusal to consider electoral reform, Clegg would be able to go off honourably into opposition, and let the Conservatives rule for a while as a minority government. The problem is that just as Harold Wilson did in 1974, Cameron would soon find an excuse for another election. On the economy, it should be relatively easy in the coming months to blame the negativity of the Labour/Clegg cabal for frustrating his efforts to save the nation, and Cameron could then call another election ASAP to clear the decks. In the ensuing landslide, electoral reform would be buried for another generation.

As many have noted, the British election has exposed the rank unfairness of the FPP system. Clegg’s party for instance, got 23% of the vote and 8.8% of the seats. The reality was probably worse. If this was a financial market rather than a political one, the right wing would be screaming about the distortions that FPP creates – and not just in failing miserably to ensure that the pattern of the votes cast are reflected in the pattern of seats won, either. The “collapse” of the Lib-Dems vote looks more like the simple outcome of people gritting their teeth and voting on the day to try and keep the other lot out. That’s the kind of mutant behaviour that FPP fosters.

Clegg knew this to be a danger. That’s why, during the election debates, he kept urging people to vote this time for what they actually want. The terrible irony is that it is Clegg who now can’t vote for what he wants – namely, a deal with Labour and a referendum on electoral reform. Once again, FPP has shown itself to be the love child of duopoly politics. Years of Thatcher and years of Blair however, have destroyed the moral basis for that cozy arrangement. In 2010, FPP can no longer confer legitimacy – much less a mandate for radical change – onto a party that has won barely more than a third of the vote.


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