by Ted Honderich

A piece that The Times Literary Supplement thought better of printing, maybe rightly. For my later and stronger view of the subject-matter, try After the Terror or Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7....


The National Health Service hasn't been getting any better under the Blair government according to a lot of people, some still waiting on hospital trolleys. Also, the gap between the rich and poor widened in the government's first year according to the independent Rowntree Trust. Class sizes for children over eight have increased since the election. Then there's public transport with Blair -- say life on the capital's Northern Line. There are more facts like that, many about equality.  

Some say there hasn't been time for the father of our age to make a difference. There is another possibility. It is that he and his colleagues and supporting thinkers do not actually want -- rightly or wrongly -- to pay the prices of all those things. So they are not really for getting those things. At bottom, they don't really want to make a big difference. 

What really is the nature of their moral and political thinking and feeling? You do not get a literal, explicit and general answer from the daily speechifying under pressure. Or lovely pledges on television to spend billions, soon scaled down to aspirations as flat as The Dome. Or more metaphors from the Creative Department in the Labour Party. That's the flotsam and jetsum. What's the tide? 

There is a better chance of seeing, isn't there, in looking again at more reflective stuff, what's called the political philosophy? That was The Third Way, known in more advanced circles as Social Democracy Renewed After the Falls of Communism, Nationalization and Thatcherism. 

Anthony Giddens, Director of the London School of Economics, let us know recently in an annual lecture of the Economic and Social Research Council why the Old Left is wrong on equality. He subsequently put the news into one of The New Statesman's essays. 

He explained that Social Democracy Renewed has a dynamic concept of equality, one that stresses equality of opportunity but co-exists with life-style diversity. The latter turned out not to be a matter of bidets and homosexual marriages. Rather, life-style diversity is what equality of opportunity results in in the next generation. This is inequality of outcome, a.k.a. some being richer. And, as the director noted, this in turn could reduce our equality of opportunity.  

I began the next paragraph in anticipation, keen to see how this possible contradiction in the thinking of Social Democracy Renewed would be resolved, keen to see how the active and energetic concept of equality of opportunity would get on. Explanation there was none. Not a whiff. Nothing at all about the actual terms of the coexistence with life-style diversity. The next paragraph was on another subject. 

Maybe I was missing something. Well, he would have told us in his book The Third Way, just reprinted, and in particular in the dozen or so scattered pages on equality. True enough, the problem was posed there, on p. 101. Equality of opportunity, some sort of meritocracy, leads to inequality of income, and that leads to less equality of opportunity. So does New Labour actually propose to end up with less of what it sets out to get more of? To deal with this problem of understanding, there was announced some rethinking of equality itself. 

Equality itself, something generic and different from both opportunity and outcome, was defined as inclusion . This turned out to be citizenship, civil and political rights and responsibilities, involvement in public space, and, alas, that very same opportunity we are trying to get straight about. As for exclusion, you're excluded by poverty, but also by getting those annual bonuses of a hundred grand, and living behind security gates. This upper-end exclusion, the result of too much meritocracy, is bad, on the way to being just as bad as lower-end exclusion.  

These evidently were the pages of a good-hearted fellow, but sociological. Partly because of being attracted to fact-grubbing, and to what is called communicating, he did not in this rethinking manage to say what equality of opportunity we are to have and what equality of outcome. Just some of both, not too much of either. But every political party that has graced the face of the earth, indeed everybody, wants some of both, the right amount. 

Do you say this is the petty intransigence of a pedant who will not understand? That if we try harder to make an entry into the mind and rethinking of the party, we will get the drift? Well, isn't this just one example of being left in the dark by Social Democracy Renewed? It's not as if the light were shed in it somewhere else, is it? 

We learn from the Director's book that this thinking and feeling is for both sides with respect to pretty well everything under the social and political sun. Both equality and liberty, welfare state and look-after-yourself-mate, Left and Right, not-Left and not-Right, markets and society, enterprise and environment, and so on. In connection with the having-it-both-ways, a hundred dynamic notions make momentary appearances in these pages, but it seems they do not and cannot tell us how much of the opposed things we are to have and what sort. 

One thing that could tell us, I take it, is some kind of principle, anyway some kind of literal and explicit summation. If it were said, which indeed it is not, that the principle is that we should always look at things from the point of view of the working class, we would be somewhere on the way to seeing how much of what sort of equality of opportunity there is to be. You don't get a principle, do you, from those little boxes of type set into the flow of all the rethinking, and containing just the bullets Philosophic Conservatism, Cosmopolitan Pluralism, Co-Parenting, Double Democratization, and so on? 

There is the same problem in another work under the title The Third Way, the newly reprinted Fabian Society pamphlet by the father of our age. Some say Mr. Blair has also had time to make a good start on the 30 books of Director Giddens. Certainly he is also wonderfully attracted to conjunctions of opposites. He is for equality of opportunity and no dull uniformity in provision, and so with rights andand the attack on poverty, more capacity for central government and devolving power. How much of each? What kind of each? Where are we Father?  responsibilities, the promotion of enterprise

We are taught that since Social Democracy Renewed is about traditional values in a changed world, it therefore is not a boring old attempt to split the difference between Left and Right, but something brand-new. The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise, does it? But that is not the main point. The main point is that for guidance with respect to a motley of decisions between opposites, and also for clarity and consistency and fairness, you need some kind of principle. Sincerity is not enough. 

Maybe more immersion in LSE thinking itself will help. Director Ralf Dahrendorf, as he was, is another New Statesman essayist. He can see that Social Democracy Renewed is somehow or other what was recommended by a committee he chaired in 1995-6. Thus what it comes to is wealth creation and social cohesion in a free society. Is that it, then, and is it OK? Not quite, he says. 

It's fine that Social Democracy Renewed dispenses with equality as a good, and replaces it by social inclusion, but there isn't enough of the free society in it, not enough of old liberty. Not enough new liberty either, this being not being made to work by having your benefits withdrawn. There is an authoritarian streak not only in the practice but in the theory, which is a little Hegelian. It goes in the direction of an ideological thought-system, the sort of stuff that was supposed to have fallen down with The Wall. Nobody is raising his or her voice against the danger. Still, things could have been worse. The whole shebang is not advocated by Father, or anybody else, and is not within their consciousness.  

Is this a dog's breakfast I see before me? Of course not, intemperate reader. But it is an indication that Soc Dem Ren is not so definite and determinate that it much limits our understanding and interpretation of itself. 

The very best summary available of it may be offered in the famous and honourable efforts of Professor John Rawls of Harvard to characterize liberalism in the American sense. A society should respect liberties, these being importantly about property, and then pursue equality of opportunity, and then distribute socio-economic goods according to a certain rule -- as little or as much inequality in these goods as makes a worst-off class better off than it would be without that inequality.  

It is not because that is actually a definite principle that it is the best summary available of our own new national programme. It is the best summary because it too is indefinite. The main one of several large indeterminacies has to do with its leaving out anything about how much the entrepreneurs are to get for creating the socio-economic wealth that trickles down to the poor and makes them to a degree better off. As it stands, on different assumptions about incentive-rewards in society, the summary issues in whatever degree of socio-economic inequality you want, zero to madhouse. 

For sure this isn't The Principle of Equality -- to which Director Giddens nods, by the way, as he passes by on the way to recapturing public space. This is that a society is to take rational and therefore effective steps, first of all in connection with the demands of entrepreneurs, to rescue people from a definable class of being badly off. The principle, you can suppose, actually defines the Left in politics.  

Is there something about hierarchic democratic politics that gets in the way of a party's stating so clear a commitment? Is there something about our own British hierarchic democratic politics? Is it the very nature of our carry-on that we have to put up with the bloody stuff we get even from our good-hearted leaders and mentors? I don't know. 

It might have been the case that the real thinking and feeling of Soc Dem Ren was so clear that you could easily see that the Rowntree fact of the poor getting poorer could not possibly have been a result of it. Nor the grim mess in the NHS, or the class sizes or life on the Northern Line. But the thinking and feeling isn't that clear. Those facts might have been a result of exactly it. 

15 March 2000  

For a very full philosophical discussion, but light-hearted, of rules, principles and ideals of equality, see What Equality is Not, Fortunately and What Equality Is