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Fairness without equality is like a car without a steering wheel

Once upon a time equality was a key goal.   Then it was softened to equality of outcomes.    Then it was weakened further to equality of opportunity.   Now the buzz-word is fairness, a wishy-washy concept which is subjective, cannot be measured, and means (as the Red Queen observed in Alice in Wonderland) ‘whatever I want it to mean’.   Now the official report published today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission called “How Fair is Britain?” moves the spotlight almost entirely away from equality and focuses strongly on discrimination.   That is a mistake.   Of course discrimination is important and should be eliminated, but discrimination is not inequality, and is actually a distraction from it.   How do we get back to the real priorities?

There is currently a subtle but strong drive to push equality off the agenda altogether.   Thatcher of course cultivated inequality for all she was worth.   Blair made clear he wasn’t interested in countering inequality (Mandelson’s “New Labour is supremely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich” says it all), but rather in social measures to improve opportunity, notably education.   Cameron’s Big Society (another fuzzy-wuzzy meaningless phrase) is about two things – not only cutting public expenditure and shrinking the State by outsourcing some of its functions to private society, but also sending the message that your outcomes are largely the responsibility of your own efforts rather thandue to external circumstances.

The truth is that personal responsibility and effort are of course always very important and should be properly nurtured and fully rewarded.   But to pretend that in a capitalist and class society income levels and socio-economic status are not overriding determinants of life chances is seriously misleading.   The fact is that in today’s Britain the inequalities in income, wealth and social and economic position are so vast – and still growing – that no amount of personal effort, or even education and training, can conceivably close the gap.

Today the average wealth of the richest tenth is 100 times greater than that of the poorest tenth.   Over 10 million people live in households with less than half the national average income.   According to the definition agreed by 117 Governments at a recent World Summit, 9% of the British population have reported their income as a lot below that needed to keep their household out of absolute poverty, and a further 8% said their income was a little below.

At the other end of the scale the latest annual survey found that the average pay for the FTSE 100 chief executives, inluding bonuses, share options and other incentive schemes, last year reached £3.2 million, or £61,500 per week.   That is 741 times more per week than the State pension and 277 times greater than the minimum wage.   And in terms of wealth, at even greater extremes, one-thousandth of the adult population (the richest 45,000) now own one-third of all the country’s liquid assets, averaging more than £8 million each.

To talk about ‘fairness’ whilst ignoring inequality on this enormous scale is just for the birds.

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