Posted Under: Class,Liberal Democrats
Last night Nick Clegg gave the annual Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian offices, and in doing so set out his vision of a just society. In his speech – a version of which was published on Comment is Free – he sought to present the Liberal Democrats as the “new progressives”, in contrast to the “old progressives” of Labour and the left.
His starting point, that statism does necessarily equate to social progress, is not something with which I would disagree. Yet his fundamental approach to creating the Good Society is neither “new” nor “progressive. Fundamentally Clegg argues that meritocracy rather than equality is central to social justice. “Social mobility”, he says, “is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality”. Inequality, meanwhile, merely becomes unjust when it is “fixed; passed on, generation to generation”.
It is perhaps idle to argue about whether such views can be deemed progressive, considering how elastic the term has become. Yet one thing is for certain: his ideas are not new. It is, after all, more than three decades since Margaret Thatcher told us: “The pursuit of equality is itself a mirage. Let our children grow tall, and let some grow taller than others if they have it in them to do so.” To be fair to Clegg he probably believes in greater positive effort to enhance opportunities than Thatcher. Yet his basic premise – that serious inequality is fine as long as it is ”earned” – is the same. To present this reheated equal-ops Toryism as the politics of “new progressivism” strikes me as either disingenuous or politically ignorant.
Enhancing opportunities and promoting social mobility may, to some, be laudable goals. Yet they are not weapons against poverty and social exclusion, at least from the perspective of society at large. As Dave Semple put it, in response to Iain Duncan Smith’s suggestion that education rather than money was the best way to tackle poverty, “even if everyone who could work had a degree, we’d simply have the best educated workforce of shop assistants and bus drivers in the world.”
The point is that however mobile a society is, many must, under the present order of things, end up at the bottom of the pile. And as things stand, this means low wages, and a particularly great exposure to the cycles of unemployment that have proved an irreducible feature of free market economies. What is Nick’s agenda for those who, for whatever reason, end up at this station in life? What is his agenda for the millions of 40 or 50 year olds who won’t benefit from the pupil premium? He does not enlighten us on such things.
Clegg also critiques the left’s focus on income inequality on the grounds that that “it pays insufficient attention to the non-financial dimensions of poverty.” “Of course” he says “it is better to have more money, even if only a little more. But poverty is also about the quality of the local school, access to good health services and the fear of crime.” And it is on these grounds he defends the comprehensive spending review in the face of findings by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that it hit the poor hardest”
The government’s own analysis, which did include [public] services, showed a different picture [from that show by the Institute of Fiscal Studies], one which showed the richest fifth losing the most from the spending review and the poorest fifth losing less. The government’s decisions to protect NHS funding, increase schools funding and provide additional early-years provision all channel resources towards the poorest.
Regardless of anything else, such an approach in fact astoundingly illiberal in the real sense of the term. Clegg essentially presents access to public services as interchangeable with cash income, when considering the impact of his and Cameron’s budget, as though the former were a perfect substitute for the latter. The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to excersise a bit of control over their day to day existence. Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed.
Nick Clegg, quite clearly, is seeking to fundamentally reposition the Lib Dems some distance away from the party that was formed by an alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats. Yet as long as Cameron remains at the head of the Conservatives, Clegg’s brand of centre-right liberalism will be competing in a very congested market place. Unfortunately for Clegg, his vacuous references to a “new progressivism” – a term already panned on the Liberal blogosphere – will, I believe, prove wholly insufficient to carve out something different.