Consider three different ideas of equality. The first is outcome equality, or levelling down – clipping the wings of some so that they can’t fly higher than others. The second is legal equality, whereby no effort is made to level down or up: all that matters is that all are treated equally under the law.
Few Conservatives believe in the first (with a few exceptions) and all believe in the second. Most, however, believe in a third: equality of opportunity – seeking to ensure that all can fly as high as their potential allows. Or, if nature and nurture render it impossible, at least in seeking to ensure that opportunity is spread as widely as possible.
This is levelling up – or, as Disraeli put it, “the elevation of the condition of the people”, and this thread runs through Conservative and Tory-led governments from his own Public Health Act through Chamberlain’s contributory pensions to Butler’s education act, Thatcher’s council house sales and Cameron’s free schools.
Tony Blair’s equality laws muddied the waters by obscuring which form of it governments should aim to promote, and thickened them further by giving different claims for it no priority – and so throwing onto the courts the responsibility of deciding what should happen when, say, the claims of faith and sexuality clash, exemplified in the “gay cake” case.
The Government is less clear about what form of equality it wants than it should be. For example, Kemi Badenoch’s introduction to the Government’s response to the Sewell Report mentions “equality” (with “fairness” thrown in), “equality of opportunity” and “equality under the law” three times on its first page.
Nonetheless, that we had a report at all was progress in the right direction. The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, to use to the title of the committee chaired by Tony Sewell which produced the report, reached conclusions so commensenscial but consensus-consensus challenging that I was surprised it was allowed to happen.
“Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” Sewell wrote in his introduction to the report, which set out 24 recommendations for action, of which most showed continuity with conventional thinking. For example, the first was: “challenge racist and discriminatory actions”.
The report was none the worse for it – nor for recommending, for example, that government policy should aim to “improve understanding of the ethnicity pay gap in NHS England”, teach “an inclusive curriculum” and “increase legitimacy and accountability of stop and search through body-worn video”.
Nonetheless, that the Commission had dared to say that “disparities are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism”, or that it found no evidence of institutional racism, couldn’t possibly be allowed to pass – not least among those who make a living from asserting otherwise.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the commissioners were targeted for criticism – all but one were members of ethnic minorities, by the way – precisely in order to warn others off challenging the consensus. The vituperation has had consequences.
As recently as this week, Nottingham University took the disgusting decision to withdrawn the offer of a honorary degree to Sewell, on the snowflaky ground that he has become a ‘subject of political controversy’. (By the way, the university boasts of its “strong links” to that politically uncontroversial country, China).
The Commission wouldn’t have been formed at all, in my view, had it not been for Munira Mirza – another disruptor targeted by the Left. The former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit drove the Commission’s mission, just as Michael Gove has pushed for a full Government response to it, a year on.
This takes me back to Badenoch, who I interviewed yesterday at the launch of the Government’s response to the Commission’s report. I wrote earlier that the Government is less clear than it might be about what form of equality it believes in, and a confidently Conservative administration would replace the equality label with an opportunity one.
Nonethess, amidst complaints that this Conservative Government is doing unconservative things (the list usually includes higher taxes, small boats and Net Zero), Badenoch strikes me as evidence of the opposite. “We accept that the use of racialised terms, such as ‘white privilege”…can be seen as unhelpful, stigmatising and potentially divisive”.
I asked her whether civil servants should sign e-mails off with Black Lives Matter hashtags, I asked her. The answer, very clearly, was no. Should pupils at school should be encouraged to take a knee? She said that they should be taught about the full context of the practice, and learn the arguments for and against it.
The Government wants to ditch the “imprecise” term (its word) “BAME”. And Badenoch’s response commits Ministers to “reforming training around diversity and inclusion in the UK civil service…putting an end to the proliferation of unproven training materials and products”.
None of this will happen without Number Ten ensuring that Badenoch is backed up, for which a Minister in the coming Prime Minister’s Department will be needed. Steve Barclay and Andrew Griffith have cleared the first hurdle, in terms of effecting a Government response to the Commission, and now face this second one.
There is a third. Oliver Dowden had a stab in America recently at making a case against Woke, and it was very much a first draft of a case that Ministers will revisit. The best argument against it is a variant of the one that Gove used to make the case for academies at the start of the Coalition Government.
This was that the rich buy a demanding academic education for their children in the private sector because they knows that this will further boost their life chances. So the best boost that deprived kids can get is schooling of the same kind in the state sector.
Strong families, good schools and decent jobs are the foundation for life chances – or so the Commission and the Government’s response to its reports suggest. When Woke calls for the police to be defunded, it’s endangering the security without which those public goods can’t be delivered.
If it loads the tax and benefit system against families, their strength is weakened. If it imposes child-centred curriculums, children are likely not to be challenged and stretched as well as loved and nurtured. If it hikes taxes too high and the state maxes out on its credit card, the consequence sooner or later will be unemployment, not jobs.
The rich have the mobility to escape high taxes (not to mention the accountants), the networks that boost their children’s job prospects and the social capital to make the most of their family life. The poor don’t. Hence the Conservative stress on home ownership, over which recent Tory Governments have strikingly failed.
But Badenoch isn’t failing; indeed, she seems to me to be succeeding, if less rapidly than I suspect she would like. Why so slow? Partly because the Prime Minister’s appetite for the conflict inherent in a project like the Commission is limited.
And partly because some of her colleagues don’t want the Sewell treatment. There was a fuss about Badenoch being an ethnic minority Tory when she was selected as a candidate. It’s out of date in a Party whose Cabinet features Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid and Nadhim Zahawi.
On the contrary, what makes Badenoch unusual among Ministers is less that she’s visibly black than that she’s visibly Conservative. Her colleagues would gain were they to give her a bit more help. She shouldn’t be left more or less on her own to critique Critical Race Theory.