From the TUC

Equality and liberty under New Labour

26 Feb 2010, by in Equality, Politics

There’s a lot of good stuff in the Guardian’s “Citizen Ethics” series, including an important article by Julian Glover (“Liberty is equality’s intractable opposite.”) The article is a good example of a certain strand of liberal criticism of the current government, and it’s worth going into why it’s wrong.

The title is a fair summary of the article as a whole. Glover begins with an assault on “legislative declarations” like the Equality Bill (and, by implication, the Child Poverty Bill.) I disagree with him – the Child Poverty Bill, for instance, should make it harder for politicians to drop their commitments on poverty when no-one is looking. Nonetheless, he’s right that it’s a type of law-making that could too easily become a substitute for achieving the outcomes that are mandated – I’ll consider voting for any candidate who can get us a law saying that Liverpool have won the premiership.

But then he gets into his stride: “Equality is not fundamental to liberty. It is its intractable opposite. Labour has wanted to be both liberal and collectivist at the same time. But it can only be one of those things. Setting equality as the goal denies, not defends, the importance of individual difference. In effort or ability or circumstance people will never be alike. In a free society, some people must be allowed to fail.”

Apart from the Equality Bill itself, Glover fails to give examples of the New Labour legislation or other policies that have simultaneously undermined liberty and advanced equality. There is a reference to tax credits being used to “encourage parents into work”, but that hardly makes Gordon Brown a monster of illiberalism – indeed it sounds a lot more like the “nudge” approach that is supposed to typify Cameronism.

Even on the Equality Bill, Glover is strong on assertion and weak on analysis:

“The bill takes to extremes the self-contradictory idea that liberty can only be guaranteed by government. It seeks to lasso every characteristic of human diversity – from homosexuality to breastfeeding – into one official corral. Freedom is made dependent on state action. Everyone must be made the same in order to that they then be permitted to stand apart.”

Sounds horrific, but it is rather an over-statement of what the Equality Bill will do.

In fact, Glover levels two contradictory accusations at the Bill and neither fits. He begins by accusing it of being mere ‘hopeful words’ and ‘mushy ideals’ and then of taking to extremes the idea that “can only be guaranteed by government.” The Equality Bill is neither.

So why is it worth your while reading this critique? That’s because Glover’s belief that liberty and equality are incompatible is well-established in this country, and also because it’s a view one sometimes hears from liberal critics of the current government. But think about the legislation that is usually included in claims that the current government has undermined liberty, measures such as:

  • The Crime and Disorder Act 1998
  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
  • The Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002
  • The Terrorism Act 2006
  • The  Identity Cards Act 2006
  • The Serious Crime Act 2007
  • The Coroners and Justice Act 2009

Now, you can have an argument about whether the government has the balance right between security and liberty, or in dealing with terrorism and other crimes. I don’t think they have. But you can’t argue that these measures were introduced because the achievement of greater equality would have been impossible without them. It simply isn’t true that any loss of liberties in recent years illustrates an unavoidable tension between equality and liberty.

Compare the UK now with this country in the past or the UK with other countries now. Are all these counter-factuals either examples of more liberty and less equality or of more equality and less liberty? Are there no countries with more equality and more liberty? Have there been no times when Britons have had more of both?

The questions practically answer themselves – and the answers mean that contemporary political programmes do not have to choose between equality and liberty – it is possible to promote the two at the same time.

There is a more important answer to this argument, and that is that the either/or approach to liberty and equality leads to an impoverished view of both. Politics is about helping people to flourish within communities. Individuals who are ‘liberated’ from any obligations to their neighbours will not flourish; societies that deny liberty will destroy the savour of everything worth having equally.

In the democratic socialist tradition, people usually emphasise positive freedom and prefer it to liberty as merely the absence of constraint. I certainly hold to that, but I still think (all other things being equal) that eliminating constraints on individuals is a good idea and creating them a bad one. The liberals I want to work with are those who believe that liberties are only made real in a living community and the best communities are more equal than those we have at present. It may be that the future will force us away from those who think that isn’t possible and either liberty or equality must be abandoned.