This essay, on inequality, “conservative values” and the “postmodern left”, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 20 December 2020, under the headline “The Tory ‘class agenda’ is a culture war stunt that will leave inequality untouched”.
‘Woke orthodoxy abolished”; “a landmark speech”; “a counter-revolution”. One couldn’t miss the fawning from certain sections of the media. Whoever is responsible for equalities minister Liz Truss’s spin definitely deserves their Christmas bonus.
Truss, who doubles up as the international trade secretary, gave a speech on Thursday to the Centre for Policy Studies that promised to “reject the approach taken by the left, captured as they are by identity politics and loud lobby groups”, to dump fashionable “postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault” and, instead, to “root the equality debate in the real concerns people face”.
Take away the culture-war rhetoric and the anti-woke bombast, however, and there was little that moved beyond the bland. “It is not right,” she said, “that having a particular surname or accent can sometimes make it harder to get a job.” It is “appalling that pregnant women suffer discrimination at work” and that they have to “dress in a certain way to get ahead”. That “employers overlook the capabilities of people with disabilities”. And “outrageous… that LGBT people still face harassment”. No mainstream politician of the past 25 years would have disagreed. Though, if someone on the left had said all that, they would probably have been denounced for pursuing “woke orthodoxy” by the same voices now lauding Truss’s counter-revolution.
Truss dressed it all up as a demonstration of “conservative values”. What it actually revealed was the degree to which liberal orthodoxies have become accepted in Britain, including by conservatives.
The equalities minister’s media admirers hailed the speech as the dumping of the politics of identity and the restoration of class to the inequality discussion. Except that she only mentioned class once and then to talk of the “white working class”. It was less a critique of identity politics than the pursuit of an identity politics of a different kind.
Beyond the left-baiting applause lines, there was little of substance. Truss promised to end “unconscious bias” training and to look into “more flexible working”. But there was nothing about the policies that would bring about her more egalitarian world. Nor any explanation of how her anti-inequality agenda squares with the actual policies of this government. With the refusal to raise statutory sick pay to a half decent amount in the midst of a pandemic, while condemning workers not taking time off when ill. With the unwillingness to make permanent the universal credit Covid uplift of £20, meaning millions of Britain’s poorest families could lose £1,000 a year next spring. With the reluctance to extend free school meals into holidays until forced to do so, twice, by Marcus Rashford. With the entrenched cronyism that mocks Truss’s claim that “fairness, not favouritism, drives our approach”. With the views of the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seemed more angry about Unicef pulling a “political stunt” by feeding hungry children in Britain than by those children being hungry in the first place.
According to the Trussell Trust, one UK household in 50 uses a food bank, of which there are more than 2,000 across Britain. The number of three-day emergency parcels the charity delivers has soared from 35,000 in 2009/10 to almost 2m in 2019/20. Given Truss’s concern for the “white working class”, it’s worth noting that 93% of those receiving food parcels are white.
According to Rees-Mogg, this is not a scandal but an occasion for self-congratulation. “The state can’t do everything, so I think that there is good within food banks,” he told a caller on LBC three years ago. The “real reason” for the rise in the numbers using food banks is that, thanks to the Tories, “people know that they are there”, whereas “Labour deliberately didn’t tell them”. These are the “conservative values” that have helped entrench inequality.
On the day Truss gave her speech, the Spectator published an interview with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. “If we think borrowing is the answer to everything, that debt rising is fine, then there’s not much difference between us and the Labour party. I worry about what that means for us politically down the line,” he told the magazine. Making debt reduction the political issue that distinguishes the Tory party is a promise of public expenditure cuts, the same approach that led to the disastrous and unnecessary policy of austerity that was pursued after 2010. It’s not a policy that any government serious about tackling inequality would countenance.
Historically, Britain became steadily less unequal in the early decades of the postwar period. Inequality shot up, however, in the 1980s, when, pursuing “conservative values”, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the demise of large swaths of manufacturing industry, the destruction of working-class communities and the muzzling of trade unions. Since then, levels of inequality have changed little, though in the years after 2010 the percentage of children and of private renters in relative poverty has sharply increased.
It is not the rise of the postmodern left but the demise of working-class organisation that has so entrenched inequality. Indeed, the Thatcherite attacks on the labour movement went hand in hand with attacks on minorities, from moral panics about black muggers to the section 28 assault on gays and lesbians.It is true that sections of the left have moved away from addressing working-class problems and that the working class figures too little in many debates about inequality. We should not, however, confuse ideological shifts on the left, troubling though they may be, with the material reasons for inequality and poverty.
Truss’s speech was less a serious rethink about how to tackle inequalities than a fusillade in the culture wars masquerading as a grand policy statement, a risible attempt to make the “equalities agenda” an alibi for failures to challenge social injustices. There is something cynical about pitting the needs of minorities against those of the working class, when neither have been properly addressed.
I have long been critical of the politics of identity, sceptical of the “diversity” approach and many forms of contemporary anti-racism and questioned the failure to take seriously the inequities of class. I have even critiqued Foucault (though only after having actually read him).I am equally critical, though, of a faux-egalitarian agenda that leaves inequality untouched but seeks to play to the culture wars gallery. Be prepared: we will undoubtedly hear many more such speeches as the Tories ready the ground to claim the issue as theirs even as they push through policies that exacerbate inequalities.