Back in 1958 the sociologist Michael Young coined the term "meritocracy".

He defined it as a political philosophy under which influence was assigned on the basis of an individual's talent and achievement.

The word has cropped up in the political lexicon over the decades (Tony Blair, for example, made it is own earlier this century), and of late Nicola Sturgeon has given it a new lease of life.

"If we had a real meritocracy now", the First Minister told the Independent last week, "we'd have a gender balance." While at UCL last Wednesday, in response to a question from the audience, Ms Sturgeon declared: "I'm in favour of the principle of meritocracy."

Before I unpick that some more, it's worth remembering that Michael (later Lord) Young, did not actually advocate such a philosophy, indeed his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy was meant as a satire, describing a dystopian society in which intelligence and merit had replaced old divisions of social class.

Young argued that if the post-war tripartite system of education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - grammar, technical and secondary moderns - achieved its stated aim then it would result in a society stratified between a powerful elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less "merited".

Indeed, when Tony Blair embraced both the word and the philosophy back in 2001, Lord Young (who had also drafted the 1945 Labour Party manifesto and helped found the Open University) was appalled, writing that the then Prime Minister had "caught on to the word without realising the dangers of what he is advocating".

As Young went on to explain, although it was generally "good sense" to "appoint individual people to jobs on their merit", it was 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". By 2001 he concluded the UK was pretty much there, and furthermore this "new class" had the "means at hand" (ie education) "by which it reproduces itself".

Therefore Ms Sturgeon's embracing of the term is curious, for it advocates something entirely at odds with her long-stated commitment to reducing inequality and promoting social justice, ie a society in which everyone has opportunity and a positive role to play.

There is, however, an explanation, and it emerged as I was researching a forthcoming biography (unauthorised) of the new First Minister. In several interviews since the 1990s Ms Sturgeon has recounted that the "most important value" instilled in her as a child was that if "you do your best [and] you work hard" then "the sky is the limit".

"There is nothing in your background that inherently holds you back or means you can't achieve what others can achieve," said Ms Sturgeon in 2006. "You are the master of your own fate, and if you work hard you can do what you want." It's a noble aspiration, just not a very left-wing one; channelling the Samuel Smiles school of Victorian self-improvement (later embraced by Margaret Thatcher) rather than the more solidarity-based prescriptions of post-war Labourism.

But if success and status (in, one assumes, an independent Scotland) is to be based on merit, then what of those who don't work phenomenally hard or dazzle intellectually? Not only that, but Ms Sturgeon's triumph-of-the-will belief does not describe modern Scotland (or the modern UK), where whole sections of society can work as hard as they like without any hope of joining the meritocracy.

Take the arts.

Last week the Scottish actor James McAvoy (currently starring in Peter Barnes' play The Ruling Class) echoed Lord Young in describing "a frightening world" with "one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts", by which he meant those educated at independent schools.

McAvoy took care to note that he had nothing against "an actor who is posh and is doing really well", but he worried about those from other backgrounds not getting the same opportunity.

But such is the problematic reality of a meritocracy, for no one could argue that the public school-educated actors currently dominating stage and screen aren't there on merit - they're all extremely talented - but the point is that the Berlin Wall between public and private education (and it's as true in Scotland as it is in England) enables those at the most expensive (and exclusive) schools to dominate most professions disproportionately.

I suppose a meritocrat could advocate removing, or at the very least mitigating, such advantages, but no mainstream political party dares upset that particular applecart - indeed the SNP is arguably the most reticent on this point; the White Paper, for example, couldn't even bring itself to mention private education.

To be fair, having long tinkered at the edges of educational policy, since becoming First Minister Ms Sturgeon has acknowledged (in her first Programme for Government) that free tuition had not necessarily improved access to university for those from poorer backgrounds, while her recent praise for the London Challenge scheme, under which inner-city comprehensives in the UK capital improved dramatically, is to be welcomed.

But it's only a start, for current levels of inequality are above all the consequence of an orthodoxy that has dominated economics since the 1980s. And however the First Minister's speech at UCL was spun last week, it didn't offer a fundamental break with that consensus. By advocating austerity-lite (increasing public spending by 0.5 per cent), Ms Sturgeon basically echoed Ed Balls' previous position (although I seem to remember the SNP roundly condemning him when he set out a similar policy).

Meanwhile the business meritocracy continues to fuel Lord Young's thesis, not something any mainstream politician, Tory, Labour or SNP, has the slightest intention of upsetting. In 1958 he predicted that financiers would invent and exploit all manner of new means to feather their own nests, doing so in the belief that as "their advancement comes from their own merits, they...feel they deserve whatever they can get".

Back in 2001 Lord Young urged Mr Blair to drop the word "meritocracy" from his public vocabulary, "or at least admit to the downside". He also hoped New Labour would distance themselves from the "new meritocracy" by increasing income tax for the rich and making local government more powerful as a means of providing "a training for national politics".

Although there are indications Ms Sturgeon is embracing localism to a greater extent than her predecessor, Scottish local government remains constrained (ironically) by Edinburgh-enforced austerity, while higher taxes is the policy that dare not speak its name even among avowed social democrats. If Lord Young were alive today I doubt he'd find much encouragement north or south of the border.

The narrator of The Rise of the Meritocracy looked back on British history from the perspective of 2033, by which point the masses had finally revolted against the elite who governed them. With inequality rising year on year, and the political classes often incapable of moving beyond rhetoric when it comes to reversing that trend, a book written almost six decades ago still stands as a potent warning.