Last week’s speech by Home Secretary Theresa May on the government’s intention to repeal some recent equality legislation was ironically and comprehensively overshadowed by the media frenzy about the impending lavish nuptials of the future King of the Realm to a Lowly Commoner. This may help to explain a little why the vacuous, fallacious and bizarre reasoning at the heart of it has been largely unremarked upon.
Overall, the speech sought to justify the repeal of the clause of the 2010 Equality Act which required public bodies to consider how they might address relevant socioeconomic disadvantages when making strategic decisions. My interest in this post is not to make the political case for this clause or not – rather it is to explore the reasoning offered by May in the speech that seeks to banish it into a category unrelated to inequalities of gender, race, religion, physical ability and so on.
The core tension emerges because throughout the speech May is desperate to present herself as a champion for gender-, age-, race- and sexual-orientation-based equality (ps nice U-turn, T), whilst trying to deny any place to socioeconomic aspects of equality. This is right at the heart of the New Conservative ideology that Cameron wants to promote – a socially enlightened politics of ‘fairness’ in a Big Society of ‘individuals’, that hugs hoodies whilst denying that socioeconomic disadvantage should be something that the government seeks to address.
The first, classic fallacy is the “equality of opportunity not equality of outcome” line,
And, certainly, I do not believe in a world where everybody gets the same out of life, regardless of what they put in.That is why no government should try to ensure equal outcomes for everyone.But we do need to recognise that in trying to ensure equality of opportunity – the “gap” still matters.
something which stands up neither to basic common sense, nor more applied thought or research. Apart from anything, it seems absurd to equate the provision which May is trying to repeal as one which even intends to achieve ‘equality of outcome’ in any meaningful sense. But more importantly, it is clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that in Britain the single greatest determinant of access to “opportunities” e.g. higher education, jobs, housing, is in fact one’s socioeconomic status and ability to compete for scarce opportunities. Despite May trying to present gender, race and sexual orientations as part of the ‘equality of opportunity’ agenda, they are far, far less important than class and income in determining ‘opportunities’. As Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang neatly explains, in any single case, one’s opportunity is largely determined by the previous outcome.
The second, again time-honoured, fallacy is the “human nature” line,
We need our equalities policy to work with the grain of human nature, not against it.
invoked in a completely unspecific way, but gesturing towards the idea that humans are naturally unequal. This has to be unspecific, because once one starts to make the claim that i.e. the sexes or the races are naturally unequal, one is in deep and muddy water, intellectually and politically. However, there seems to be reliance on the idea that humans are, in terms of class, ‘naturally unequal’. Yet this idiotic fallacy clashes with the one above – i.e. that we should aim for equality of opportunity. Why bother, if it is human nature to be socioeconomically unequal?
A third problem of straightforward contradiction emerges, in May’s attempt to accuse the equality legislation of ‘pointless political correctness’. On the one had, May excoriates equality legislation (presumably equal opportunities monitoring? She is unspecific) for amounting to nothing more than box-ticking, which represented the state trying to reduce people to single characteristics and statistics rather than treating them as individuals.
Part of the problem with this old approach to equalities was that it categorised millions of people according to what box they ticked on a form. It stopped treating people like individuals and instead viewed them as part of some amorphous herd.The idea that as a person you are defined solely by your gender, by your race or by your religion is as patronising as it is absurd.
On the other hand she does precisely this as she excitedly enumerates the numbers of minority, women and gay MPs in her opening:
We have more women MPs than ever before. We have more black and ethnic minority MPs than ever before. We have the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet. We have more openly gay MPs than ever before.
And bemoans ongoing aspects of group-based discrimination:
Despite legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act, around a third of disabled people still experience difficulties in accessing goods or services.And despite some of the longest standing and broadest based race equality laws in Europe, some ethnic minorities still suffer inequalities in education, employment and health – estimates suggest that at least 4 in 10 black men could be on the National DNA Database.
Whilst taking about people in terms of specific characteristics amounts to ‘pointless political correctness’, May nonetheless does plenty of it – all the time repeatedly making the ridiculous claim that providing information about a characteristic which has made you historically vulnerable to discrimination means that you are no longer considered an individual by the government. There might be some disagreement amongst you logicians as to whether this counts as reductio ad absurdum or a lie.
The fourth problem is the role that the deficit plays in the argument, which basically amounts to the claim that “we can’t afford equalities monitoring”. This has been dealt with extensively in many other places – suffice to say that a very large amount of doubt can be cast on two core elements of this: a) that it is a record deficit, and b) that ‘we are all in this together’.
A fifth highly dubious theme in the argument is the old chestnut (being re-roasted by the government) that socioeconomic inequality is equivalent to or at least highly correlated with unemployment, which can be largely attributed to lack of effort.
Yet, we live in a society where a cleaner working a 70 hour week can earn a hundred times less than a hedge fund manager working the same, where significant numbers of middle and upper class households can choose to be single-income and where there is a high level of inherited wealth. I do not have authoritative statistics, but I would be willing to bet that the numbers of hours worked in households with lower incomes on average exceeds those on higher incomes.
A final absurdity in the argument is May’s claim that, basically, because legislation has not solved many problems of inequality, this is grounds for abandoning it:
You can’t make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better. That was as ridiculous as it was simplistic and that is why I am announcing today that we are scrapping the socio-economic duty for good.
The breathtaking stupidity of this line of reasoning can be exemplified by inserting any substitute, e.g.: “You can’t [prevent sexual harassment] by simply passing a law saying that [sexual harassment should not happen]. That was as ridiculous as it was simplistic and that is why I am announcing today that we are scrapping [laws against sexual harrassment] for good.”
So, encapsulated neatly in a single speech, is the deep conundrum and intellectual hodgepodge of the Conservative Party’s claim to be championing equality. On the one hand there is the old Conservative claim that socioeconomic inequality is natural and reflects fairly the efforts one has made to better oneself, state attempts to correct them are totalising, de-individualising, box-ticking, and part of ‘pointless political correctness and social engineering’. On the other, the ‘progressive’ Tories show deep concern for the plight of the disadvantaged, are delighted by the Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Disability Discrimination act, are saddened that gender and race-based forms of equality have not been achieved and determined to make government more transparent as a result to challenge this. The Tories have reached new levels of hypocrisy and intellectual schizophrenia in this latest attempt to square their basic belief in inequality with the progressive consensus. The result of this attempt to exclude socioeconomic inequality from the debate about equality of opportunity is as unrealistic as it is logically, ethically and practically bankrupt.