Britain’s Elites: New Lions, Old Foxes.

Britain’s Elites: New Lions, Old Foxes.

Daniel Smith

In The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033, Young warned of a new aristocracy where individuals could rest assured that their privileges and prerogatives were earned; individual talent replacing the inheritances and lottery of birth. But the aristocracies of birth still haunt contemporary Britain because meritocracy preserves the structures of advantage it seeks to dismantle.

Meritocracy is willingly embraced by contemporary social elites precisely because it occludes, rather than flaunts, their privileges. Far from ‘everyone is equal’, meritocracy preserves hierarchies and the realities of class distinction while claiming to have exorcised the ghosts of inherited privileges.  As Piketty [1] argues, a ‘meritocratic order’ does not arise from a ‘level playing field’: rather, a meritocratic order arises when inherited wealth and earned income become both more closely connected, and also are in competition.

In today’s reproduction of elites, inherited wealth remains important, but it has to compete with high-incomes and new money. One outcome is that social representations of the elites’ wealth and performance stress ‘merit’, ‘talent’ and individual attributes over collective and inherited assets. Those with inherited wealth now claim they deserve their position on the basis of performance and ability.

We are witnessing what Vilfredo Pareto would have called a circulation of elites [2]. Pareto’s model of changes in the distribution of power in society noted a distinction in the mentalities and practices of elites: between the ‘lions’ who are traditionalists, who hold fixed ideas of order and appropriateness; and those who seek opportunities, innovate, and experiment – the ‘foxes’. British elite circles currently consist of a receding group of traditional elites, Britain’s landed gentry and aristocracy, and an emerging global, super-rich, class. We could tell the sociological story of ‘lions to foxes:’ as the super-rich foxes gain prominence, the gentry lions surrender their power.

Thus, taking his cue from Piketty, Savage [3] sees a ‘new breed of social elites’ organised around urban infrastructure and real estate. However, he sees that this “wealth elite” is ‘unlikely to be coherent amongst itself, and indeed probably experiences more internal division than any other class.’ Burrows et al [4] emphasise how in ‘Pikettyville’ the super-rich global elite have accommodated residual ‘gentry lions’ as a servant-managerial class. However, to tell the story in this way misses the ethnographic complexity of this shift, and the place of merit and inheritance within this elite landscape.

What we are witnessing is a shift in the substratum of elites. This transition is not a case of ‘in with the new, out with the old.’ Rather, a diverse, super-rich elite are entering Britain’s elite institutions and taking on their traditions and customs. In so doing they are entrenching these institutions’ power and significance. But they are also refashioning elite world-making: the forms of conduct, practice, and claims to ‘justification’ which secure elite power. We must therefore be sensitive to the contradictions manifested in a diversity of elites.

This can be illustrated by Britain’s elite educational institutions, the public schools and Oxbridge. The public-school system has had extraordinary propulsive power in the patterning of elite trajectories. More than any other institution, those educated in Britain’s Clarendon Schools are more likely to reach elite positions in occupational structures in later life. But the public-school system and Oxbridge no longer cohere as bridging institutions to elite positions for a coherent British upper/upper-middle class [5]. We are seeing a ‘dispersion of elites’. Alongside the waning of religious and military institutions, the public schools have moved away from educating only the sons of a traditional British ‘gentry’ elite, with the introduction of female and foreign-born entrants [6].

Associated with this is an embrace of a ‘meritocratic ethos’. For example, Simon Henderson, the Head Master (sic) of Eton College claims that anyone, ‘from a poor boy at a primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying prep school in the south’, can aspire to be educated there. Given this diversity of recruitment, de Bellaigue ponders, ‘which is the ‘real’ Eton? – the laboratory for progressive ideas about social inclusion, or an annexe to Britain’s heritage industry?’ De Bellaigue goes on:

the answer is of course ‘both’ … The school aims to educate the elite, as it always has, but it has reshaped itself in order to accommodate a new elite defined by money, brains and ambition, not pedigree, titles and acres.

However, one is bound to miss something crucial if the emphasis is purely on ‘merit’ (de Bellaigue’s ‘money, brains and ambition”) at the expense of the decaying gentry lion (de Bellaigue’s “pedigree, titles and acres’). Public schools propel their pupils into, and perpetuate, elite positions, guaranteeing elite identity and worldviews. De Bellaigue misplaces the power of elites for the power of Eton as a specific type of institution and form of social organisation. It is not the Etonian (fox or lion) who defines Eton; rather, Eton defines the Etonian. For the British public-school system and Oxbridge, meritocracy – an emphasis upon individual talent and skills – has become the language of shared relationships which occlude conflicting principles of ancestry, origin, and descent (i.e. the ‘who’s who’ of elites). Indeed, what meritocracy does most of all is encourage us to misplace our focus upon talents at the expense of their origin, nature or social form.

That said, the occlusion of entitlement and inheritances in the polity of meritocracy does not get rid of inheritances. Rather, entitlements reappear and reform themselves within this new landscape. My ethnographic research looked into the patronage and sponsorship of Oxbridge societies and lifestyle pursuits by the British heritage brand Jack Wills. It found that discourses of meritocracy mixed with the other aspects of elite institutions which de Bellaigue highlights acted as ‘an annexe to Britain’s heritage industry’ [5].

Oxbridge polo players knew that the patronage of the Jack Wills brand was largely, if not exclusively, based upon the elite status that polo has in Britain and, as importantly, the Oxbridge name. ‘Andrew’, a club marketing manager, saw both meritocracy and tradition reflected in club members: those who ‘wish to seriously play the sport’ compared to those who ‘want to wear the stash,’ (i.e. the Oxbridge polo club/Jack Wills branded apparel). As Oxbridge and elite universities have expanded beyond traditional entrants, the traditional public school crowd in the polo club have been diluted. Meritocracy brings the assumption that entering into elite enclaves, such as a polo club, is an aspirational act – to be seen wearing the right logo and club insignia. Yet it also puts into contention the nature of the club itself.

From my observations, those who ‘wish to seriously play the sport’ were by far the most privileged persons, with family wealth, a public-school education and a markedly upper (-middle) class disposition. For Andrew, the insistence on taking the sport seriously is at once an accommodation of the culture of meritocracy in sporting guise and a redefinition of inheritances and privileges. All ‘serious’ polo club participants asserted that polo is a difficult sport involving skill, hard work, effort and practice; it just happens to be associated with an ‘image’, as they put it, of elitism.

Something crucial has changed: we are seeing the repudiation of the tradition of public-school gentlemanly amateurism. Andrew is asserting a discourse of professionalism – a meritocracy of players dedicated to the sport. This serious ethos applied to polo can be read as a synecdoche for wider debates about the legitimacy and permissibility of privileges. Andrew has earned his place as a polo player, just as he earned his place at Oxbridge. The trouble is, his image – his clothing, its logos and insignia – confuses the issue.

Meritocracy has become the language of a civic polity where one’s worth is evaluated not on the basis of membership of ‘clubs’ but on the basis of individual contributions, talents and skills (educational or recreational). We are well beyond the days when noblemen at Oxbridge would be exempt from examinations or have the privilege to wear a ‘golden tuft’ (Oxford) or ‘purple and gold gown’ (Cambridge) to mark the noble from the ignoble. Rather we are in a world where the marks of insignia compete with the demands of civic inclusivity.

Meritocracy is fraught with this conflict. On the one hand it has become embraced because elites could no longer rely upon discourses of entitlement as a defence of privileges. On the other it has made the fault lines of inheritances, privileges and prerogatives even more salient in the navigation of legitimate belonging and the vanity of minor, status differences. We need to pay attention to how Britain’s elite have long been able to accommodate these conflicts.

[1] Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp378, 416-417.
[2] Pareto, V.F. (1935 [1916]) The Mind and Society. New York: Harcourt Brace. Ed. and trans. A. Livingston.
[3] Savage, M. (2014) ‘Piketty’s challenge for sociology’, British Journal of Sociology, 65 (4): 591-606, pp603, 602.
[4] Burrows, R., Webber, R. and Atkinson, R. (2017) ‘Welcome to ‘Pikettyville’? Mapping London’s alpha territories’, The Sociological Review, 65 (2):184-201.
[5] King, A. and Smith, D. (2017) ‘The Jack Wills Crowd: Towards a sociology of an elite subculture’, British Journal of Sociology, 69 (1): 44-66.
[6] Reeves, A., Friedman, S., Rahal, C. and Flemmen, M. (2017) ‘The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private schools and elite recruitment 1897 to 2016’, American Sociological Review, 82 (6): 1139-1166.


Daniel R. Smith is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University. He is author of Elites, Race & Nationhood: The Branded Gentry (Palgrave, 2016) and, most recently, Comedy & Critique: Stand-up comedy and the professional ethos of laughter (Bristol, 2018).