“Like it or not, the free market economy is the only show in town. Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer.
No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity….”
“…it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try and stifle wealth creation, and futile to try to stamp out inequality…”
So said Boris Johnson in his 2013 delivery of the Margaret Thatcher lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies. Inequality of outcome was, he argued, somewhat of a natural inevitability. Indeed, it was “essential” if the twin spurs of competition and greed were to be applied to the economy, resulting in greater wealth for all and better funding for public services through a higher tax take.
It was a pretty neat summary of the argument against Conservatives adopting the leftist mantra of equality of outcome. It wasn’t a Randian barb against compassion, nor was it a contrarian celebration of social Darwinism. Above all, it was reasonable – a modest conservative recognition that we must deal with the world as it is and build a system for human beings as they are, not try to pretend that central planning can bend reality and nature to a politician’s will.
That view is not without its challengers, of course. Boris’s 2013 speech is passionately opposed in today’s Spectator by, er, Boris Johnson:
‘He…fumes that current gap between rich and poor is ‘outrageous. The wealth gap has been allowed to get too big.’ It is an issue he has sought to address by promoting the living wage of £9.15 an hour in London, and £7.85 nationally — both substantially higher than the £6.50 minimum wage.
It’s hard to force companies to pay more than the minimum. But Johnson believes companies that don’t shouldn’t be given government contracts. ‘It’s not reasonable for companies that have chief executives and board members who are paid very considerable sums to subsidise low pay through in-work benefits.
Isn’t this all a bit left-wing for a Conservative? He thunders back, ‘I don’t care.’ And then: ‘I actually think it’s reasonable for politicians to talk about it and to care about it. Look at the income differentials in any company in London and in Britain, they have massively expanded in the last 30 years. The multiples that we now tolerate are extraordinary.’
Isn’t all this talk about ‘tolerating’ high pay a bit, well, Miliband? Johnson runs his hands through his hair in exasperation before replying, ‘Look, we’re all part of the same ball of wax. We’re all cut from the same cloth, made of the same timber. I do think human beings cannot be faulted for wishing to judge themselves and their lives and their achievements by others around them, that is a natural human feeling.’’
There are two points to consider here. The first is the woeful lack of consistency on Johnson’s part. He has many talents, and we have often praised his unique electoral abilities, but the willingness to switch so starkly on such an important topic is troubling. If after re-entering the Commons he aspires to play a senior role on the green benches then he must discover and explain what he stands for - and still stand for it 18 months later.
The second point is less personal and more general. This question of equality is hugely important – not least because it poses a huge risk to the future prospects of the Conservative Party.
As Tim Montgomerie argues in today’s Times, the reputation of our party is a major concern:
“[The Conservatives'] “party of the rich” problem is getting worse rather than better. In 2010, 78 per cent thought the Conservatives were too close to rich people. Remarkably, that number is even higher today: at 85 per cent. Despite George Osborne’s enormous efforts — which include the bank levy, top earners contributing most to deficit reduction, and repeated ministerial pay freezes — voters aren’t convinced that “we’re all in this together”.”
There is an urgent need to work out an approach which overturns that damaging stereotype, that’s beyond doubt. But it is just as important to maintain our principles and grow our popular appeal while doing so. I fear it is on those latter criteria which the mistaken but fashionable pursuit of equality falls down.
To appreciate why it would be a mistake to take on the left’s pursuit of equality, it’s important to note what kind of equality we are talking about. Equality before the law is a fundamental value of civilised society – there’s no debate about that. Equality of respect is desirable, but can only be delivered voluntarily by an educated, informed and courteous society, not really by politicians, as Graeme Archer recounts in his most recent column.
Rather, this debate is about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome - should government seek to ensure that all have a good chance to do well in life, or should government seek to ensure that all actually do do well in life, regardless of effort, ethic, ability, nature or even chance?
It shouldn’t be hard to see the risks in adopting the language of the latter rather than the former. For the reasons that Boris himself laid out in that speech to the CPS, it is unrealistic to pretend that the equality of outcome is possible to enforce. Indeed, the process of trying (and failing) to do so is severely damaging. In the end, all states that seek to ensure everyone finishes the game of life equally come to realise that the only means within their power to approach that goal is to drag those at the top downwards, not to lift up those at the bottom.
At best in such societies, perverse incentives are created, success is punished, aspiration is undermined and all – including the poorest – lose out as a result. The 2013 edition of Boris described it as wrong, mad and futile – and he was correct.
Not only do such ideas fail economically, they don’t work to fulfil their stated electoral or reputational goal, either – at least not for Conservatives. If we want to persuade people we aren’t the “party of the rich”, then we need to make our own case for a Conservative approach to raising people up out of poverty. We will never out-Labour Labour in a competition over who really stands for envy, class war and punishing success.
We need to explain – and to prove in practice – how equality of opportunity is the best route to solving society’s ills. A good first step would be ditching the jargon of equality altogether – instead, this is about fairness.
A Conservative crusade for a fair society would end the scandal of kids being forced to accept worse schooling just because they live in a poor area. It would ensure that the hard-working masses had access to good jobs, good homes and good savings, as we laid out in our ConHome manifesto. It would make it cheaper and easier for new companies to break open stale markets – in the interests of consumers and innovators. It would also smash open crony capitalism and corporatism at the top, removing the opportunity for those with access to state power to use it to tilt the pitch in their favour.
Helping millions of people to gain better lives for themselves and their children is clearly the moral thing to do. It is also the self-interested thing to do – a society with a larger, wealthier middle class makes all of its members better off and more safe. Last, it is a popular thing to do - far more popular than offering the envy rather than real, lasting improvements in people’s lot.
As 2013 Boris might say to his 2015 counterpart, Tories help the poor by raising them up, they don’t pretend to help them by bringing others down.