The intelligence delusion

In today's world, intellect has trumped all other measures of worth—with divisive consequences
October 2, 2020

Fresh from university in 1989, I became a researcher on a documentary to mark 10 years of Thatcherism. The team was led by the Guardian columnist Hugo Young and the former Labour MP Philip Whitehead (who went on to become an MEP). It was a crash course in the intellectual bewilderment of the centre left as it grappled with how—despite ripping up the post-war political consensus—Margaret Thatcher had been rewarded at the ballot box. Why had voters rejected a model that had served them relatively well? While the left seemed impotent to find a coherent counter-strategy—though Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques made valiant attempts—it was already evident that a bitter dogfight was taking place over how the history of the 1980s would be told: as a free-market triumph or a tattered tale of make-believe?

Thirty years on, a comparable bewildered horror at the way the world is going has set in among those in the political centre. The result is a stream of books that hazard explanations for the upsurge in populism, and the causes of the deep resentment driving politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Compared with the late eighties, this round of angst has a much larger dose of soul searching among avowed “progressives.” The hubris of the Blair-Clinton era—exemplified by the elite’s disdain for those with less education—has come home to roost with Trump and Brexit. In David Goodhart’s new book, Head, Hand, Heart, the founding editor of Prospect nails this attitude perfectly as “class narcissism”: “you too can be like us.” I wince as I remember conversations I had with New Labour ministers when I was a Guardian columnist, as they outlined a narrow vision of social mobility and equality of opportunity that I was too slow to question. The type of success they advocated required the brightest to abandon their communities; it started with university and moving to a big city, and then expanded into developing a lifestyle and values at odds with your upbringing.

Lynsey Hanley’s brilliant book, Respectable, powerfully described the discomfort inherent in such a journey, in her case from a working-class Birmingham estate to middle-class life after university. Meanwhile, in the US, George Packer’s masterful The Unwinding offered rich insight into the lives of those failed by the liberal consensus, and more recently Anne Applebaum has surveyed both sides of the Atlantic as well as Eastern Europe in Twilight of Democracy, interrogating what inspired former friends to throw in their lot with populism. In this crowded territory, Goodhart has already had one stab at an explanation in 2017’s The Road to Somewhere, a book that infuriated as many readers as it impressed. He argued that society was divided between “anywheres” and “somewheres”: the educated metropolitan, happy with multiculturalism, fond of novelty, with few attachments to place, versus those more bound to family and community, with less formal schooling and more wariness of diversity.

This time round, his categorisation is determined by your job: head (as in professional, managerial occupations), hand (technical, skilled trades) and heart (emotional labour/care work). Annoyingly, Goodhart doesn’t provide definitions for his categories: I’ve had to deduce them. But perhaps he ducked that challenge because the terms quickly blur, as he admits. One of his most telling anecdotes describes the complexity of a bus driver’s job as she calculates how to safely manage her passengers getting on and off at the same time as navigating the traffic: this job requires both hand and head. A moment’s reflection is enough to realise how many others, from shopkeepers to building site foreman, have likewise been required to combine attributes during the pandemic; but even before, it was common. A doctor needs both head and heart, as do most managerial positions, while care work involves as much hand as heart and more head than is commonly recognised. There has always been a realm of hand-based work that involves the head: in arts, crafts, and the artisanal food sector.


So can employment really be so neatly segmented in this way? And does the attempt to do so tell us anything interesting? I would argue no to the first—but yes to the latter.

One of Goodhart’s main arguments is that a cognitive meritocratic elite (head) has come to monopolise esteem and influence to the detriment of hand and heart jobs. His talk of meritocracy brings to mind one of Hugo Young’s testier interviewees for our 1989 documentary. Norman Tebbit is still best known for his comment in 1981 that his father found work in the 1930s by getting on his bike and looking for it. Tebbit characterised a Thatcherite agenda of individual effort, hard work and personal responsibility—a meritocratic mythology that has proved persistent for the last four decades. For the skilled working class, success entailed setting up your own business, buying your council house and then taking advantage of a booming property market. A builder friend of mine says he and his wife are the last of their respective wider families left in east London, the rest bought their council houses, sold them and moved to Essex. He and his wife are regarded as losers for not moving up the financial ladder: family gatherings are dominated by the subject of houses—buying them, doing them up, selling them—and money.

Tony Blair embraced the idea of the aspirational society and thought the best way to achieve it was a massive expansion of universities. Goodhart argues that the unfortunate effect has been to impose a stranglehold in which only the “cognitively blessed” or “cognitively able” (his terms are problematic) can rise to the top. We divert the brightest out of essential activities of hand and heart and skew society’s rewards in terms of respect and status towards just one type of ability and job. Goodhart has a bugbear about the questionable value of an expanded university sector. Given that he admits he and all four of his children have benefited from a university education, and being well aware of the benefits university brought me in navigating a metropolitan middle class (from a rural upbringing in north Yorkshire), I remain unconvinced.

Where Goodhart is right, though, is to remind us of the dangers Michael Young identified in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. If you set up society as a competition, there will inevitably be contemptuous winners and resentful losers. We have lived with this system for a long time. Declaring an end to post-war ideals of solidarity, Thatcherites missed no opportunity to celebrate the benefits of competition in every area of life. Blair followed suit, urging Britain on in a competition which had become global.

But have we ever actually been a meritocracy? Forty years of rhetoric have created a useful fiction about individual merit or the lack of it, which has been employed to bully welfare recipients, mask persistent inherited advantage and legitimise inequality. The middle classes have managed to game the system, ensuring their children maintain their social status. Private school students remain stubbornly over-represented at the best universities. Goodhart is a rigorous enough thinker to concede all these points; but if we don’t actually have a meritocracy in the first place, the subject seems a red herring, albeit one that throws up some interesting points. The really significant thing is that the routes to power, both economic and political, have come to be dominated by a particular form of academic achievement, which has less to do with individual aptitude or merit than we like to pretend.

Goodhart is absolutely right to lambast the pitiful UK record on vocational education in comparison with Germany, and right that the academic achievement of those he calls the “cognitively blessed” has become more important as a passport to the top. But he neglects the cultural dimension of power: most teenagers’ role models are musicians, actors, sportsmen and social media influencers. Fame is now potentially in reach of any teen: they don’t even need to get out of bed. He barely mentions celebrity culture—the warped value system in whose shadow we all now live.

Reading this book, I was struck by how dense it is with other thinkers’ and writers’ work, data analysis and academic research. The book demonstrates its own argument that we have unwisely privileged supposedly objective abstract reasoning. My head was spinning so much I took a break to work on my current DIY project: Polyfilla-ing my front wall.

My point is serious. I wanted to know more about the experience of those exemplifying different forms of intelligence and work; and I wanted to hear from the people Goodhart is trying to explain. Do the self-made Essex relatives of my builder friend really feel lower in status to harassed graduate professionals? I don’t think we can assume so: they might conclude that those university types are losers stuck in the public sector whose London houses are in serious need of renovation. More likely to engender resentment is their mate who has just bought a motorboat and put in a fancy new kitchen. It is those who started out from the same point who eye each other most closely and measure status accordingly.


Resentment breeds not necessarily from others’ good fortune but from a sense that you played the game by the rules and discovered too late they were stacked against you. One anecdote Goodhart quotes is powerful. A plumber set up a company reconditioning old washing machines, which thrived for over 20 years until the business model failed. The machines were too flimsy to be repaired anymore and the prices of new models were so low, he couldn’t compete. His work had been useful and he had taken pride in it; but his skills had been made redundant by changes in manufacturing. For his story, one could read many million more of skilled manufacturing jobs that have disappeared in the last four decades, replaced by jobs with lower skill requirements and lower pay. Millions have had their lives, identities and self-worth upended as their competence has become useless, and their children have struggled to find good apprenticeships. (Goodhart has some shocking figures on the steep decline in technical sub-degree qualifications such as Higher National Diplomas: the numbers taking them have dropped from 64,000 in 2000 to 15,000 in 2016-7. Just 4 per cent of 25 year olds in England hold such qualifications compared to 20 per cent in Germany.) These changes are resented for how unevenly their impact has fallen: the banker benefits, the welder and his son are out of a job.

Unlike Lynsey Hanley, Goodhart has no relevant personal experience to bear on the argument: he makes no mention of doing any manual work, and his only reference to “heart” work is a regret that when he was looking after his children in the park, he was often on his mobile phone. That partly explains why I found his chapter on care work unsatisfying despite appreciating his wish that it was more respected.

One of the questions posed by my own book Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care is why care is so little understood as an activity, let alone appreciated as one of the lasting central tasks of many lives from birth to death. The sustaining of another person’s wellbeing within the intimacy of family—be they a child, an invalid, an elderly parent—is an enormous and complex task. Within the context of a job, there is an additional interplay of professional competence, allocation of attention under time pressure and awareness of risk, to name just a few elements. But historically, care has been regarded as women’s work, routinely belittled as “instinctive”—as though all you needed was a good heart. Women were socialised to provide care for free, to be “caring” and thus self-sacrificial and self-effacing.

Nursing in particular has been caught in a gilded cage by this patriarchal history, struggling to find the recognition for its skills and the authority to exercise them; nurses are too often praised as angels and expected to “go the extra mile” without being paid properly. On the question of nursing degrees, Goodhart squirms—here is a test case of his complaint of “academisation of vocational training”—but he has to grudgingly concede that studies have consistently shown university training has led to better health outcomes. Written into the structures of capitalism from the start was a division between the recognised paid work of the public realm and a disregard for the unpaid care work of the private realm. As women’s paid employment rose, the welfare state failed to take up the care responsibility and, as a result, gaps have emerged at multiple points in our care economy: Covid-19 has exposed this tragic weakness. The UK’s response in the last few decades has been to delay, ignore and botch: the result has been a fragmentary, precarious childcare sector and a cruel lottery of inadequate social care.

The irony is that as Covid-19 ripped through the UK’s fragile social care system and thousands of elderly people died, we clapped for our carers. It was the familiar trap of offering carers love and idealisation, but not proper wages or job security—in short, the lot of many mothers and wives. Both Goodhart and I make a plea in our books, written before the virus, for more respect and value for the vital labour of carers. The hard part is what comes next: has Covid-19 permanently shifted the dial to ensure decent pay and enough time to do the job, or will that warm impulse quickly fade?

As an argument for a wider, more diverse education system, with more funding for vocational courses, Goodhart’s book is spot on; as a warning of how automation and AI will erode the very white-collar work we revere even while the need for care work will continue to rocket in our ageing society, it is equally good. But as a schematic framework to explain the rise of populism, the head, hand, heart distinction fails to convince.

In recent decades, capitalism has been left to determine the value of people and their labour without any powerful countervailing institutions or value systems, thereby generating a brutal dystopia. Goodhart quotes the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, to this effect. But he is still resistant to the left’s attempt to curb and challenge this dystopia. In the end, the book verges on an extended apology for his previous worldview, which he now says was too narrow, and which overvalued some forms of achievement while disregarding others. He wants workers using their hands and hearts to be more respected, but in calling for this he risks sounding platitudinous. In the last pages, he relays the familiar thought that on our deathbed the most common regret—especially of men—is not having spent more time on relationships. Writing the book has been quite a journey for Goodhart.

Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, by David Goodhart (Allen Lane, £20)