Love Island’s Thatcherite contestant – and what her comments exposed about meritocracy in the 2020s

13 Feb

This week there was huge outrage on social media about the fact that an influencer called Molly-Mae, who emanated from the ITV show Love Island, has been given her own book deal, Becoming Molly-Mae, at the tender age of 22.

Molly-Mae, to explain her relevance to a political blog, has recently evoked comparisons with Margaret Thatcher for advocating the value of hard work. In a Youtube series called The Diary of a CEO, Molly-Mae told listeners that she “worked her a**e off” for her wealth, advising them: “You’re given one life and it’s down to you what you do with it. You can literally go in any direction.”

She continued on her Conservative streak, saying: “I understand we all have different backgrounds and we’re all raised in different ways and we do have different financial situations, but I think if you want something enough you can achieve it.”

Since then, Molly-Mae has proven as divisive as – well – Thatcher. For every conservative delighted to find their poster girl, others reacted as though discovering that their milk money had been taken away. I dare Molly Mae to tell some of the UK’s lowest paid workers that they’re less hard working tha(n) someone who takes Instagram for a living”, wrote one user on the Twitter-sphere, echoing the sentiment of countless others.

Is Molly-Mae in the “right”? (literally). I should add that I have no specific interest in Molly-Mae, although I dislike the type of Twitter pile-on she has been subjected to, but it is interesting that her comments sparked such backlash; that the concept of meritocracy has now become heresy when espoused by a young person.

Maybe, though, part of the reason people were so cross is that the very formula of Love Island flies in the face of conservative values; that the show, along with the whole Instagram model of finding fame, has become symbolic of wider societal ills – leaving many less than impressed with the advice to “try harder”.

Love Island, should you not have had the pleasure, has always been a troublesome show. It is well known that a number of former contestants, and its host Caroline Flack, have died from suicide.

Its format, as far as I can tell, centres around the idea that love can be induced by the same processes seen in Stockholm Syndrome; that if you put two people in a close space together long enough, they will fall for each other. Year after year, a collection of hot young things go to Mallorca – the “Love Island” – in their bikinis and swimming trunks, to see if this effect can take place, earning big bucks from modelling deals afterwards.

At the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse at this point, I should add that it is, of course, no secret that young, attractive people have always enjoyed being able to make money from their looks. Power to you – if you have the body of a Baywatch star.

But I also think there have been signs that contestants were uncomfortable with having to do this. Molly-Mae, for instance, quickly dissolved her lip and jaw fillers – which had presumably helped her get a place on Love Island – after the show, and many have gone into completely different careers, distancing themselves from it. 

There’s Dr Alex George, a physician, who has become a mental health ambassador to the Government; Liam Reardon, who revealed plans to quit fame and become a property developer; and Faye Winter, who’s launched a homeware brand and also gone into property. Most have bought expensive houses and some have started families, enjoying the quiet life.

In other words, these contestants appear to have seen Love Island as no more than a launchpad to do what they actually want to do. They have taken advantage of what you might call a “short-cut” economy, finding the financial security that perhaps would have been difficult to achieve before.

It’s not very surprising they might have concluded this is their best option. In the current climate, what could any of these contestants look forward to if they tried to earn capital through more “normal” means, based on the experiences of their peers? A lifestyle of eating baked beans in a shared flat somewhere in London, spending over a third of their income on rent? You get the picture. 

Sadly, the traditional models to “making it” – financial security and a house – have rapidly depleted for people in their 20s, 30s and even older. For all the Government’s talk of “levelling up”, the movement has no generational feel. So why not “level” oneself up through the quick-fix solutions?

In essence, Love Island, in a strange way, should act as a wake-up call to politicians about the current confines of the economy. Far from hard-earned skills paying off, fillers and plastic surgery have become means to a better livelihood. Youngsters are absorbing a worrying message. “If you want something enough you can achieve it”… “if you can show some skin on the way.”

Daniel Hannan: Why is the West falling behind? Because we are abandoning meritocracy.

19 Jan

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Even in Pakistan’s remote mountain passes, you keep stumbling upon China’s spoor. By the side of empty roads, you find monuments celebrating the unlikely alliance between the world’s first purpose-built Muslim country and the last Communist power. On the edge of villages, you find Chinese-funded social projects. More and more, you find highways, dams and factories springing up along the path of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

I spent early January in those sparse highlands. Like most visitors, I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and the warmth of the people; but also by an uneasy sense that a country with the strongest demographic and cultural ties to us has drifted into the orbit of a nearer and fiercer star.

Pakistan has its own reasons for cosying up to China, which it has long seen as a counterweight to India, and to which it is closely tied commercially. But something similar is playing out across swathes of Asia, Africa and, now, Latin America. Countries which, 20 years ago, looked to the West culturally and politically – countries which wanted to think of themselves as a law-based, propertied, multi-party democracies – have found an alternative model.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s clever and charming prime minister, recently put it this way:

“Up until now, we were told that the best way for societies to improve themselves is the Western system of democracy. What the CPC has done is that it has brought this alternative model. And they have actually beaten all Western democracies in the way they have brought up merit in their society.”

Merit. That’s the key. Allocating positions through talent rather than by birth, caste or status was a big part of what originally elevated the Anglosphere and a handful of related European states over their rivals. Now, just as the West is letting go of the idea, the world’s greatest autocracy has taken it up.

I have been thinking a lot about merit since reading Adrian Wooldridge’s magnum opus, The Aristocracy of Talent. I had vaguely intended to review it last year, but I was enjoying it too much, and wanted to savour each chapter.

Wooldridge, who recently moved to Bloomberg after a career at The Economist, has written one of the great books of the decade. Here, meticulously researched and in arresting prose, are definitive accounts of Plato’s authoritarian philosophy and the way later generations interpreted it, of China’s mandarinate, of the rise of IQ tests and much else. But what comes across most strongly is just how downright weird the concept of meritocracy is.

For most of human history, hierarchy and heredity were seen as the natural order. Wooldridge begins with some lines by our national poet:

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

I remember Michael Portillo getting into terrible trouble when he quoted that passage. Yet, until an eyeblink ago, almost no one seriously questioned the world-view that Shakespeare was articulating. It seems to have been hard-wired into us as social primates. Even when we imagine future worlds – think of Star Wars, Dune or Foundation – we people them with emperors and princesses.

Wooldridge shows how English-speaking nations, in particular, replaced kin-based models with open selections and exams. He reminds us of how recent and, by global standards, how unnatural this system is. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its chief supporters were on the Left. The Webbs and their followers saw a rational, socialist state as resting on meritocratic appointment, while many conservatives protested that abandoning the older social order would leave people deracinated and unsatisfied.

Oddly, from our present perspective, some of the biggest supporters of IQ tests and unadjusted exams in the United States were black sociologists, including Horace Mann Bond, Charles Johnson, Howard Hale Long and J. St Clair Price, all of whom saw the ability to rise by talent as an antidote to racism.

Judged by economic outcomes, meritocracy worked. Countries that tried it got richer than countries that didn’t. The Anglosphere went more or less the whole hog, but most places ended up with hybrid systems. Pakistan, for example, took from Britain the common law, individual property rights and a civil service open to talent. It also retained clannish voting patterns, resting on strong extended families.

As long as Western nations had open institutions, they tended to outperform their rivals. But, as Wooldridge shows, they are now turning against the creed that elevated them.

The assault comes simultaneously from both sides. There is a Trumpy/populist/Know-nothing line of attack which holds, roughly speaking, that a bunch of effete pointyheads, removed from the general population, are imposing their Leftie values on the decent majority. And there is a woke line which holds that groups rather than individuals are what matter, and that if, say, blind assessments result in more Asian than black students getting into a particular university, then those assessments should be racially weighted.

There is a third and more subtle critique, which posits that meritocracy is a hoax. Rich parents, themselves products of elite universities, invest resources in rigging the system in favour of their children, sending them to expensive private schools and buying them opportunities to ensure that they go to the same universities and perpetuate the cycle.

This line often comes from beneficiaries and exemplars of the system being decried. Professor Daniel Markovits of Law at Yale Law School argues in The Meritocracy Trap that “merit is nothing more than a sham”, a way to transmit inherited privilege. Harvard’s Michael Sandel agrees. In The Tyranny of Merit he laments the decline of manual jobs and argues that a new trans-national elite has arisen, bringing hopes of social mobility to an end for most people. The same theme is taken in Britain by David Goodhart who holds, in Head Hand Heart, that the overvaluation of cognitive skills (head) over manual (hand) and caring (heart) has led to the creation of a graduate oligarchy.

There is something in this analysis. The solution, though, might be more meritocracy. The domination of elite schools by the wealthy could perhaps be addressed by crammer-proof aptitude tests. The under-valuation of non-academic skills is widely acknowledged, and huge efforts are being made to boost technical education.

Far more dangerous is the notion that openness to talent is intrinsically racist. Woke critics don’t want to improve meritocracy. They want to return to the pre-modern idea of group rights, collective identity and advancement by caste. A theory that was, until perhaps eight years ago, more or less confined to campus, has, with astonishing rapidity, taken over most of our institutions. Company boards, charities, schools, churches, political parties, local authorities, NHS trusts and, most of all, the civil service – all now recruit and promote on the basis of physiognomy as much as aptitude.

You know who isn’t bothered about “equality, diversity and inclusion”, though? China. That’s why it’s on course to become the world’s largest economy. No wonder ambitious politicians across Asia and Africa are learning Mandarin. No wonder up-and-coming cadets want to train at the PLA National Defence University rather than Sandhurst.

The way for any society to get rich is to allow people to rise to the level of their talents, to remove obstacles of birth, tradition and clan, and thus to marshall its human resources with maximum efficacy. We used to do that very well. Now, others have taken our place.

Bim Afolami: Five books to read over the summer recess

9 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

For this piece over summer recess, I thought that I might take you through some books and articles that I have recently read. It might tempt you away from reading newspapers over the silly season of August which is now upon us.

First up is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist. I am rather a fan of his books, and believe this is his best. In my last column for ConservativeHome, I referenced the core arguments of the book, which attempts to revive the very principle of meritocracy – which is currently under attack from elements of both right and left.

It charts the history of meritocracy around the world well – the chapter on imperial China is fascinating – and sets out how far we have come in making government and economies and societies better, in large part because of a commitment to this principle, and abandoning it would be deeply unwise.

Second is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by one of the best-informed China analysts, called Dan Wang. It concisely demonstrates how the USA’s recent actions in seeking to attack the global interests of Chinese tech companies may be good in the short term, but over the longer term may lead to a faster development of domestic Chinese technology, rather than relying on American technology to supply its businesses.

That will have huge implications for the US, the UK, and the world. Grappling with how to approach a newly swaggering China, on issues as diverse as tech investment, human rights, and climate change is going to be one of the huge strategic challenges of the British Government for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I would urge everyone to subscribe to the newsletter on Dan Wang’s website. His memos on what is happening in China’s government and Chinese technology is far superior to anything I have read in the Western press.

Third up is a rare book. It is short. It informs you about a subject in an informal, entertaining way so that you remember what is written. And it leads you to investigate further. It is called Rare Metals War, and is written by a French journalist, Guillaume Pitron. It explores the dark side of our quest to go green to net zero, as it exposes the mining practices in various parts of the world, such as the Congo, where the rare metals (i.e: Cobalt) required in everything from solar panels to mobile phones to electric vehicles are extracted.

Spoiler alert: the conditions can be terrible, and the process not very green at all. In addition, the book clearly shows how the strategic importance to the UK of having a reliable and relatively cheap supply of these critical metals will only grow and grow. Unsurprisingly, China is already much further ahead of the game than most (if not all) Western countries, and it has secured supplies in most of the critical mining regions of the world. If our green reindustrialisation is going to be achievable (and we need it to be), we need to think hard about our supply of these metals, and not just hope for the best, as their prices continue to rise steeply in the years to come.

Fourth is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. If you like the countryside, I urge you to read this book. Rebanks is a farmer who manages his own land – the same that his family has managed for generations. He brutally illustrates how hard it is for farming to remain a profitable activity, and the damage that modern farming methods have wrought in order for agriculture to remain economically viable.

It also offers us hope for how we can better manage our green and pleasant land in the future. I really can’t do this book justice in a short time. Do read it: as a politician with a rural constituency (and I work closely with our farming community) it certainly got me thinking about how things need to change.

Finally, a list of book recommendations would not be complete without a political biography. I must recommend Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. It is a masterpiece. Obama is the first US President in a long time who can really write. He really can. If he wasn’t a politician, he could have made it as a first rate author. This book not only offers a good account of his presidency, but it is very moving (and candid) on how to manage trying to be a good father with a very demanding political career.

As a black politician myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how he managed as the first black President. He did it with grace and courage. Regardless of your view of his politics (I personally think he had many failings in both domestic and foreign policy, and his style could be somewhat arrogant and condescending at times), there is little doubt that he is an extremely good analyst not just of US politics but also US culture.

The final section is the account of how the US military took out Bin Laden, and despite the fact that you know the ending, it is a very gripping read. Can’t wait for the second volume and the arrival of Donald Trump….

Politicians need to reflect and read. I find it really helps me get a perspective on what is going on, whether in my own constituency or in the country more broadly. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned even one novel – a real failing of mine that I am trying to rectify. When I attempting to navigate the crowded beaches of Daymer Bay, I shall be re-reading a book that I haven’t read since studying German at school – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: a wonderful story about family, wealth, decline, and culture.

Interview: Goodhart says Johnson understands better than Starmer that a graduate meritocracy alienates manual workers

21 Oct

Sitting on a bench on a sunny afternoon in Hampstead, on a grassy bank with a view of Erno Goldfinger’s modern house at 2 Willow Road, David Goodhart warns of “the dark side of creating a cognitive meritocracy”.

In his new book, Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, Goodhart contends that this meritocracy now shapes society largely in its own interests, and has devalued work done by hand or from the heart.

He believes Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Boris Johnson have so far shown greater signs than the Labour Party of comprehending what has gone wrong, and the need to uphold a national social contract.

Goodhart adds that we are sending far too many people to university, creating “a bloated cognitive bureaucratic class” and “a crisis of expectations for the kids”, many of whom find their degrees are of no real worth, and turn instead to protest movements such as Momentum and Black Lives Matter.

He laments “the lack of emotional intelligence of highly educated people”, and also touches on his own outbreak of rebellion after failing to be picked for the First Eleven cricket team at Eton.

ConHome: “Let’s start with the distinction you made in your previous book, The Road to Somewhere, between the Somewheres and the Anywheres.”

Goodhart: “The new book is The Road to Somewhere part two. It’s motivated by the same interest in understanding the political alienation of so many of our fellow citizens and what lies behind it.

“One of the complaints about the previous book was that the Anywhere/Somewhere divide is too binary. Obviously it is somewhat binary. But in the real world it is somewhat binary.

“People who read the book will know there’s lots of sub-divisions in the Anywheres, lots of sub-divisions in the Somewheres.

“A lot of the Guardian-reading classes felt I think very defensive about the last book – possibly rather less so about this one. The last book made more enemies because I was pointing out to a lot of people who think of themselves as progressive, and indeed on the side of the people who I call the Somewheres, that they are part of the problem.

“They like to think it’s the rich and the corporations that are the problem. But actually it is the lack of emotional intelligence of highly educated people whose priorities have dominated our society for the last generation or two.”

ConHome: “So this is new? Or it’s got worse, anyhow.”

Goodhart: “Exactly. It’s only really in the last 25, 30 years that the liberal graduate class has become so dominant, more numerous, and less inhibited about pursuing their own interests – generally thinking, for most of the time, that these are in the general, common interest, and indeed some of the time they are.

“Quite a large part of this is about educational stratification. It’s about the dark side of creating a cognitive meritocracy.

“We’re in the middle of a great deluge of books having a go at the meritocracy. There’s the Michael Sandel book, The Tyranny of Merit, there’s a guy a few months ago called Daniel Markovits who wrote a book called The Meritocracy Trap, he teaches at Yale Law School and is partly talking about his own very, very high-flying American students, and how even they suffer from it in some ways.

“These bigger reflections on the limits of meritocracy have mainly come from America. It’s quite interesting to reflect on why that is. One obvious reason is that meritocracy only really became – contrary to Michael Young’s intention [in The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, published in 1958] – a feature of Centre-Left politics back in the Eighties, Nineties.

“After all, the Left had been at least formally more egalitarian than meritocratic. Meritocracy after all is the opportunity to be unequal.

“As that bold religion of socialism died, meritocracy became the soft soap version for modern social democrats, as the Left was forced to accept much of the political economy of the Centre Right, the Reagan/Thatcher reforms.

“It was easier for them to tell the meritocracy story than for the traditional Right, who at some level were still defending privilege. But even the Right was quite happy to take up the meritocratic mantle – the joke was that Tory party had been the party of people with large estates and was now the party of estate agents – they practised meritocracy while the Left talked about it.

“In America in particular this coincided with a period of grotesque increases in inequality, and slowdowns in social mobility pretty much across the western world.

“Meritocracy tends to get it both ways. It’s both criticised for not being sufficiently meritocratic, and it’s criticised in itself, for its own ideal – the Michael Young critique, which is essentially an egalitarian one. He was a very old-fashioned egalitarian socialist.

“Most people would go along with the Michael Young critique if you express it in terms of why on earth would we want to turn society into a competition in which the most able win and most of the rest feel like losers?”

ConHome: “It’s a very bleak, utilitarian idea, isn’t it. It doesn’t even contemplate the idea of human beings being of equal worth, which is the Christian idea.”

Goodhart: “The foundation of Christianity, and the foundation of democracy. One person one vote.”

ConHome: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…”

Goodhart: “In recent times, too much reward and prestige has gone to this one, cognitive form of merit.

“Of course we all believe in meritocracy at some fundamental level. You do not want to be operated on by someone who’s failed their surgery exams. The people who run your nuclear research programme should be your top nuclear physicists.”

ConHome: “If you support Arsenal, you want Arsenal to have the best players.”

Goodhart: “You do not choose the England cricket team by lottery.”

ConHome: “In your new book, while remarking on the role played by chance in deciding a life course, you say your rebellious streak, mucking up your A levels and so forth, emerged as the result of your failure to get into the First Eleven cricket team at Eton.”

Goodhart: “I compare myself to John Strachey, who became a leading Communist in the 1930s after failing to get into the Eton First Eleven.

“My self-regarding explanation for that is that I was captain of the under-16 team, and I was a very selfless captain.”

ConHome [laughing]: “You gave everyone else a bowl.”

Goodhart: “I was an all-rounder, so I came in at number seven or eight, and I bowled fifth or sixth change, so I didn’t really develop either skill to a sufficient level to get into the First Eleven.”

ConHome: “Too much of a team player. And why did you not get those six votes when you stood on a Far Left ticket for a full-time student union job at York University, and just failed to win?”

Goodhart [laughing]: “That was bloody lucky. I’d be a f***ing Labour MP now.

ConHome: “Your father, Sir Philip Goodhart, was a distinguished Conservative MP. Anyhow, you feel relieved not to be a Labour MP.

“Which leads on to the question: who, politically, gets what you are talking about? Did Nick Timothy and Theresa May?”

Goodhart: “Well I think so. People sometimes say I influenced the notorious ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ [May’s party conference speech of October 2016], but I think Nick is perfectly capable of thinking of that himself.

“But I contributed to a climate of opinion that made those sorts of ideas more legitimate and mainstream.

“It’s a shame that section of that speech…”

ConHome: “Came out all wrong.”

Goodhart: “I think what she said is perfectly right and perfectly legitimate, and she was actually aiming not so much at the Guardian academic, what Thomas Piketty called the Brahmin Left, she was aiming more at the people who don’t pay their taxes and the corporations who don’t pay their taxes, the people who live in the first-class airport lounges.

“All she had to do was preface it by something like ‘Of course there’s nothing wrong with being an internationally minded person…'”

ConHome: “There are lots of people here in Hampstead who think of themselves as citizens of the world, but they love Hampstead as well, and would rise up in their wrath against any threat to Hampstead.”

Goodhart: “They don’t have to love their country, but it’s also important they feel some kind of attachment to their fellow citizens, rather than feeling only attachment to international bodies or people suffering in faraway lands.

“Of course one should as a human being feel that. But national social contracts remain incredibly important, central to politics in many ways, and if the best educated and most affluent people are detaching themselves from those social contracts then I think there is a problem.

“And it’s reasonable for politicians to talk about it.”

ConHome: “To some extent both Trump and Johnson – without falling into the trap of imagining them to be identical – their success is partly explained by the work you’ve been doing.”

Goodhart: “Populism is a bastard expression of a majority politics which has not received expression in recent decades. The politics of what one might call the hard centre.

“Daniel Bell, the American sociologist, was asked for his political credo, some time back in the 1990s, and he said ‘a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture’.

“And I think that combination, I suppose someone like David Owen in this country might have come closer to it than most people, is very attractive, and I think it’s almost a majority one, but for various contingent historical reasons neither of the main political parties of the Centre Left or Centre Right have at least until recently adopted it.

“A lot of populism is a bastard form of that kind of lost centre actually.

“But I think both the Theresa May and to some extent the Boris Johnson government, when the Conservative Party decided it was going to be the party of Brexit, and particularly given how they’ve shifted to the Left on economic management, they probably come closer to that combination at the moment than any other political formation.

“And in some ways that’s a good thing. Boris rather oddly represents that combination, perhaps more than Starmer. And I do think, although I’ve been a member of the Labour Party most of my adult life, I resigned only a couple of years ago, I couldn’t bear the direction, because of Corbyn, yes, but even for Starmer I think there’s a real problem, me and Matt Goodwin argue which of us used this analysis first: that it’s easier for parties of the Right to move left on economics than it is for parties of the Left to move right on culture.”

Goodhart ended with some remarks about universities: “It’s absurd that we subsidise, even with tuition fees, the grand motorway into higher education. We’re international outliers in the very expensive form of higher education, which is residential higher education.

“Breaking that is I think pretty important in some ways. It’s a difficult thing to do. You get accused of wanting to kick away the ladder.

“We do need to readjust, and not allocate all of the prestige and reward to people that take the academic route, particularly as you just get diminishing returns.

“The most useful people, the Einsteins, are always going to be the people with the very highest academic, intellectual insight, producing new knowledge.

“What’s happened, though, is a whole great bloated cognitive bureaucratic class has emerged that piggybacks on the prestige of the higher intellectual cognitive class, and it’s now become dysfunctional.

“The knowledge economy simply doesn’t need so many knowledge workers, and yet we’re on automatic pilot, we’re creating a crisis of expectations for the kids.

“Even before AI comes along you can see this in the collapse of the graduate income premium. It used to be 100 per cent or 75 per cent, it’s now for most kids who don’t go to the most elite universities below ten per cent.

“They have these expectations. I think a lot of the political eruptions of recent times – Bernie Sanders in America, Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement, even perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement, although there are obviously other factors there – are partly an expression of the disappointment of the new middle class at the lack of higher status and higher paid employment.”