The Olympics teach us (among other things) that Britain isn’t meritocratic enough

August 9, 2012

Oh no.

I know, I know. Just when you were enjoying a welcome break from squabbling politicians on the box. For some reason you prefer to see heroic gold medallists pushing the boundaries of human achievement, rather than a bunch of overweight guys in suits with undiagnosed personality disorders trying to score points off one another.

But I’m afraid there’s no escape. Over the next couple of days the political class will, inevitably, bicker over what political lessons can be drawn from the games. Let me have the first stab, so we can at least get this out of the way.

Lesson 1: Britain is not totally useless. We can do quite big things and do them quite well, actually.

Britain sometimes seems to have an odd mix of high self esteem and low self esteem. We are quite proud of our history, which is generally happier than most other European countries. But particularly in the post-war years of our relative decline we got into a rut of we’re-a-bit-useless self-depreciation; Private Eye used to joke about how British Rail was for “emergency use only”. Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was the sporting personification of this spirit. And big projects? The Millennium Dome was seen as proof positive that we couldn’t do them well – over budget and underwhelming. After the totalitarian splendour of the Beijing Olympics we were definitely doomed to flop. And yet…

The best thing that could come out of these games is a renewed sense that we are quite a serious country that is capable of doing big things well. If we can effectively build a new city in East London for the Olympics, why not charming new garden cities for us to live in? Why should the train you get to work be slower than it was in the 1930s? If the Chinese can build a 6,000 mile high-speed railway in a decade, why does it have to take so long for us to do anything here? Perhaps we can raise our sights a little now?

Lesson 2: Government matters. But let’s not get carried away.

In the 1976 summer Olympics, East Germany won 40 gold medals, West Germany 10 and Britain won 3. It was similar in 1988: The GDR got 37, West Germany 11 and Britain just 5. Later on it turned out that the people of East Germany were not to be fobbed off with gold medals, but in fact wanted to live in a free country without brutal repression, constant Stasi surveillance and bad food. Who knew?

But with the welcome collapse of communism also came the collapse of the GDR’s elite sports training programmes. That meant fewer hairy female shotputters. But fewer gold medals too. Compare the 2012 gold medal totals so far: Germany 9 golds, Britain 22. How times change.

There is a lively debate already underway about the role of lottery funding in Britain’s Olympic bounceback. We basically spent a lot more, and focused it on what we could do well at, and prioritised the elite level. The BBC quoted Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, as saying that:

Lottery funding in the 90s has a lot to do with … That devotion of financial resources, particularly on building up elite teams, has had a big effect on Britain.

Any day now you can expect some politician to use this as an argument for more government involvement elsewhere. They’ll say something like: “if strategic government intervention can lift our sporting performance, then couldn’t it lift our economic performance too?”

It’s a good question. To which the answer is probably no. State intervention worked out for East Germany (and is working for Britain) in sport. But state intervention in the economy gave the eastern bloc the Trabant, and Britain the Austin Allegro, neither of which would have won gold for anything, except maybe rusting.

Nevertheless, politicians are constantly tempted by the lure of industrial policy. As the opening ceremony suggested, British people are proud of our traditions of industry and engineering, and would like to revive them. By a margin of three to one voters would like politicians to favour manufacturing over other sectors.

That may explain why George Osborne has called for a “modern industrial policy”, while Ed Miliband wants a “modern industrial strategy” (spot the difference). Expect more of this post-Olympics. The key question is – why should we think things will be any different this time round? On paper “Industrial Policy” sounds great. I’m attracted to it myself. But I’m also wary, because in practice it never seems to work out, and politicans end up giving out grants for political reasons, or to delay the demise of failing businesses. Perhaps there is a better way, which brings me on to…

Lesson 3: Victory through specialisation

Dressage, rowing, sailing, shooting, slalom, canoe… How many of the sports that we have won gold in have you ever taken part in?

Actually this is a little unfair, as we have done well in more mainstream sports too: from tennis to athletics. But British Olympic success is a little like our manufacturing. Endless battering from low wage / mass production has left us doing best in lots of niche-but-high-end activities like making satellites or pharmaceuticals. Your smartphone may say on it that it was made in China but the sound chip may well have been designed and manufactured by Wolfson Microelectronics, a Scottish company.

Of course there is a lot more that we could do to make Britain an attractive place to design and manufacture things. But as in the Olympics we will need to double down on our strengths rather than pretending we can go back to the past or compete with China on low wages. We have to adapt to the knowledge economy. Which in turn means…

Lesson 4: We should embrace elitism and meritocracy

Is “elitism” less of a boo word than it was two weeks ago? If we can embrace it to win Olympic gold medals, why not Nobel Prizes too?

While the Olympics aren’t good for libertarians (see above) they are hardly egalitarian either. Everyone starts on the same starting line, but at the end some athletes are further ahead, and there are clear winners. That’s basically a description of meritocracy.

Or is it? If I am lined up next to Usain Bolt on the starting line, is that really a fair contest? Lefties would argue that I should get a head start to make things interesting. They would worry that life in Britain resembles a relay race in which middle-class people hand on the baton of their advantages to their children, giving them an unfair advantage.

But I think that what people want is not actually equality of opportunity (basically impossible if children live with their parents) but just moreopportunity for those who don’t have it.

People in Britain like the idea of meritocracy, but don’t think that Britain is meritocratic enough.

I think they are right on both counts. So on the one hand we should spread opportunity. Providing high-quality pre-school education to poor kids would be a good investment for Britain. We should set a target to reduce the number of poor kids growing up in tower blocks, and reduce the number in sink schools.

On the other hand we need to get away from Britain’s obsession with levelling down. Michael Gove has made some steps in this direction, but there is almost no provision for highly able children (the idea is practically taboo).

The result of this is that in the international PISA tests only 1.7 per cent of 15-year-olds in England attained the highest levels in mathematics, compared to 26.6 per cent in Shanghai. England came 29th out of 37 countries.

When we won only one gold in the 1996 Olympics, it prompted politicians to do something. The figures above should provide a similar shock. But the forces of anti-elitism are probably too strong.

Lesson 5: Politicians should be realistic about school sport

Politicians have already started trying to score points off one another over school sport. Lefties say wicked David Cameron is selling off all our playing fields. The Right allege that hippies in state schools are driving down standards by banning competitive sport. Neither is true.

It is true that this Government has approved 21 playing fields for disposal. But the DfE fairly points out that 14 were of schools that had closed, 4 were sites that became surplus when existing schools amalgamated, and the others were bits of marginal land sold off exactly to pay to improve sports facilities. They point out that between 1999 and 2009 a total of 212 disposals were made (21 a year as it happens).

Between 1992 and 2005 we sold off almost half our playing fields. In some cases it may have been sensible to exchange a bit of land for much-needed funds. But if we want to stop the sell-offs, perhaps politicians should ask why there is such pressure on playing fields in the first place? The answer is that Britain’s mad planning system makes it impossible to build on bits of land which may have low value, and we don’t use on the edge of cities, creating pressure to “fill in” the bits of green space in our towns which we value the most. This is mad.

And it isn’t just school sports fields, we want children to grow up with gardens they can play in, not trapped in the high density flats which town planners favour and force people into. But our mad planning system has meant that in London alone in recent years we lost the equivalent of 22 Hyde Parks worth of front gardens. “Garden grabbing” had been the only way to get houses built, because our cities are banned from growing outwards. So where are kids in cities supposed to play?

And those hippies. Where are they exactly? I’m sure that in the 1970s you could have found some mad trots who wanted to ban competitive sports. (“The egg and spoon race is typical Bourgeois late capitalist attempt to divide junior members of the proletariat”, etc.) And there are still a couple of such bods who pop up from time to time. But really that kind of madness has been receding for a long time.

Boris Johnson has called for children to have to do two hours of PE a day. This a bananas amount of sport, and in practice it would lead to the exclusion of music, science, art and lots of other good things in life. It’s also wrong in principle. Politicians stop trying to run absolutely everything, or dictate how every minute of the school day is spent. Every year politicians demand more time for their current pet subject. Today it’s PE, tomorrow it will be maths, or maybe financial literacy, or citizenship, or whatever. They are less keen to pay for more teaching time, so mandating that more time must be spent on one thing means less for another. Left to their own devices, many academy schools are lengthening the school day, exactly so that they can have more time for good things like sport. Perhaps politicians should just trust schools and parents for once?

Lesson 6: The public are beyond Left and Right

What did the opening ceremony say about our nation? Carl Sergeant, a minister in the Welsh government, gloated that the opening ceremony was “the best Labour Party political broadcast I’ve seen in a while.” Some on the centre Right certainly had a neuralgic reaction to the plug for the NHS.

They shouldn’t fret. The people of Britain have about a zillion contacts with the NHS every day, and we we know full well that there are no dancing nurses in starched uniforms, and there is lots of frustration and waiting around. But we are still glad it exists. Chinese people may wonder why we are so obsessed with Europe’s 14th best healthcare system. But I don’t think the popularity of the NHS is really because people have been propagandised into believing that it is a world-beating system. It’s sort of bound up with the original unrealised aspirations of the welfare state, a symbol of our aspirations to create security for ourselves.

If politicians could learn anything from the opening ceremony, it was because it was basically just a big list of stuff that people in Britain like. Some are associated with the more Right, and others the Left.

So we had the Queen and the NHS. The armed forces and ethnic harmony. Churchill, Great Ormond Street, Chelsea pensioners, two great engineers, and the only known positive depiction of bankers in the last five years.

These days voters shop around for their politics, and don’t fit very nearly into the package deals offered by the parties. They are Left about some things and Right about others. Perhaps a wise politician might be in favour of all the things about Britain that we like?

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website

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