Let's relax about fairness

This talk of social mobility is a poor form of radicalism, says Alan Ryan

July 30, 2009

It must be the recession. Here we are, well into the silly season, and seriousness is breaking out. The boy wonder James Purnell bounces out of the Cabinet, announces that new Labour is too conservative to be tolerated and sets about rewriting socialism for the 21st century; and Alan Milburn, about to retire from politics again - to spend more time with his directorships rather than his family this time round - has rediscovered the importance of social mobility. Which he, like almost everyone else, identifies with equal opportunity and more generally with equality full stop. He thinks, apparently, that universities are central, that schools are central, or that good parenting is central. Or all three; I'd settle for all three with the third at the top of the list.

Where to begin? How about James Purnell? The reply to him is that of course new Labour is conservative. The labour movement has always been conservative; even revolutionary socialism is conservative for the obvious reason that it was a reaction by the 19th-century working class to the horrors of early capitalist industrialisation. The reaction was spurred by pre-industrial values.

Why else would Ruskin, Dickens and Carlyle have been so attractive to the first Labour members of parliament? They were racist, authoritarian, and defended social and political hierarchy in a way that might make anyone blush; but they were devastating critics of industrial capitalism.

Alan Milburn is trapped by the contradictions of new Labour. You can't be "seriously relaxed" about people being filthy rich, in the immortal words of Lord Mandelson, our minister for higher education and everything else, and be serious about equality.

Or rather you can be, but you have to run the kind of capitalism imagined briefly by Herbert Spencer and roundly rejected by everyone else. You'd have to take seriously the idea that everyone should start with equal resources and make what they could of them. One obvious way to do that would be to have inescapable 100 per cent death duties. Each child would be endowed at 18 with her or his share of the national wealth and then left to get on with it. The winners win, the losers lose, and at death whatever the winners have won goes back into the pot for the game to start again.

Anything else exposes the tensions between competing aims that we all live with. Isaiah Berlin spent decades rightly reminding us that we are pulled in different directions by competing goals, values and ideals; in his centenary year, we should remember it.

A Labour government that competes with the Conservatives in being nice to voters who don't like inheritance tax - even though it's the fairest and least painful of all taxes - isn't going to embrace Spencer's radicalism.

More importantly, even if the public's hostility to inheritance taxes is misguided, the sentiment behind it - wanting to do all you can for your children - isn't. There is a narrow line between doing the best for your children and giving them unfair advantages over everyone else's children. But any policy to make equal opportunity a reality has to walk that narrow line. A society in which parents didn't care what happened to their own children, or felt they had no power to affect their lives for the better, would be intolerable.

But so would be one where "devil take the hindmost" was the rule for thinking about other people's children. Making policy without a consensus about what constitutes fairness is impossibly difficult; but if the better-off are to be asked to sacrifice something at the margin to rectify such obvious scandals as the way the poorest children fall behind long before they get to school, we've got to build that consensus.

You can see how hard it will be when Milburn falls for the Sutton Trust's contentious statistics; he blithely talks about 3,000 state-school students having "their" places at university taken by independent-school pupils with the same A levels. Of course if they had really had their places stolen, it'd be unfair. But in what sense were these "their" places? What grades are compared with what?

One argument against the new A* grade at A level is that it is going to reveal that within the A band - which stretches for 20 marks and contains, for instance, more than 40 per cent of the candidates in mathematics - the upper reaches are dominated by the privately educated. Will this show that these places are really "theirs" after all? I hope not.

The reality is not happy. We have spent 30 years being seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich. If social mobility is your goal, people getting filthy rich exemplify it - consider the late Jade Goody or the still-with-us Wayne Rooney.

The misery is that we have lost the knack we had for 20 years after the war of non-punitively helping the underprivileged and under-resourced, not to become filthy rich, which is anyway perfectly indecent, but to lead interesting, productive and happy lives. It'd be good to recover it.

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