A few months ago I wondered at the clash of ideologies going on within Boris Johnson, who, in the course of 18 months, had come out in favour of inequality and against it.
I argued that:
‘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?
…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.
…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.’
In other words, while Conservatives ought to feel fury at situations which deny people the opportunity to improve their lot, in order to tackle them practically and plausibly we would need to develop our own argument, not simply squeeze into the ill-fitting clothes of the Left.
Boris seems to be listening (or at least developing his thinking along similar lines). Tim Montgomerie reports that in his speech to the Centre for Social Justice today he said that there were three conditions required for inequality to be acceptable:
‘(1) That the wealthy do indeed pay their fair share – and I think George Osborne has been completely right to crack down on tax evaders and on large corporations whose tax contributions still do not properly reflect the scale of their operations in this country;
(2) That people who work hard on low incomes, and whose efforts are indispensable to the success of this city and this country should be properly and decently rewarded by firms that can afford to do so. That is why I congratulate the Chancellor his initiative on the new national living wage though I stress that there are still millions in this city who can be and should be paid the London living wage of £9.15 an hour and I think it outrageous that there are exectives earning about 450 times the average pay of their employees and yet whose firms are mainlining hundreds of millions in inwork benefits taxpayer-funded subsidies that allow them to get away with low pay
(3) The third is that there must be the possibility of individual advance. There must be openness there must be a permeability in the affluent classes.’
So the Mayor is moving towards a compromise with himself – he started off saying that inequality was inevitable, then declared that it was unacceptable, and now he recognises that while inequality is inevitable, it is also unacceptable that someone ought not to have the opportunity to escape poverty and make themselves a success. Inequality tempered by opportunity and mobility – that is a far more palatable solution than trying to parrot the so-called solutions of socialism.
The question remains: given that he went from one extreme to the other in 18 months, is there any guarantee he will now stick with this middle approach permanently?