Tony Blair pushed equality as a one-word slogan, deliberately blurring equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, thus helping the Left to push for the latter. David Cameron is trying the same in reverse. “I want us to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in our country today,” he said yesterday in his speech to the Conservative Conference. “Freedom. Democracy. Equality. These are precious.” But earlier in his address, he referred to “our belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome……not everyone ending up with the same exam results, the same salary, the same house – but everyone having the same shot at them”.
The political context isn’t hard to understand. To stress equality is, as the Prime Minister sees it, part of detoxification – a way of fighting back against the charge that the Conservatives are “the party of the rich”. But what about policy content? Should a Tory Government be aiming to achieve equality at all?
Obviously, Conservatives don’t support equality of outcome, tried out as it was with such success in the Soviet Union. Some have reservations about equality of opportunity, pointing out that, since the nature and nurture of each person differs, it can never be achieved (and could not without turning government into a tyranny). But since Tories want to see more people have more opportunities, it follows that we support giving more to people who start with fewer. And there is one form of equality that even those Conservatives who detest the e-word have no scruple about: equality before the law.
It is tempting to conclude that more equality of opportunity would be good and more equality of outcome bad, and that there is little more to be said – other than that it’s best in social policy, which was at the core of the Prime Minister’s speech, to aim to combat poverty rather than produce equality (which is precisely why Iain Duncan Smith has reformed the way in which his department assesses child poverty). And that a more adventurous Conservative Government would slim down the present equalities legislation and streamline the Equalities Commission, re-badging it as an Opportunities Commission with a specific remit to further social mobility (though see Peter Franklin’s cautionary note on that concept here).
But the stubborn fact remains that inequality of opportunity leads to inequality of outcome – and that Conservatives shouldn’t be indifferent to the latter when it has been gained unfairly at the expense of others.
The new entrant power company that can’t enter a rigged market, state school selection by house price, the green energy provider whose product is unfairly advantaged by government, the local family near the back of the queue for a council house, the big charity that gains a Whitehall contract which a smaller one would make a better fist of, institutions from abroad that avoid tax on their properties while British citizens have to pay them…all this is part of what Michael Gove meant when he said that “inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time”. And it is bound up with the debate about tax credits, to which this site will return tomorrow.