By Paul Goodman.
"Equality is the great thing, equality is everything," says Steerpike in Mervyn Peake's "Titus Groan". But what kind of equality, since one sort tends to clash with another? For example, equality of opportunity, that liberal objective of an older generation of Conservatives, is incompatible with equality of outcome, that bluntly-expressed aim of an older generation of socialists. After all, a man can't ascend as far as his talents or luck will take him, propelled by equal opportunity, if his rise is also to be blocked by an iron ceiling, equal outcome. The one can't be moved without the other being pulled with it: they are like the two ends of a toy train.
Indeed, how equal can opportunities ever be, given the new insights which science is opening up about what is "written in our DNA"? Or given truths that we should have known all along - such as the way in which parents guard the interests of their own children more zealously than those of others? Consider, for example, the coming rise of a new generation of Labour politicians: Euan Blair, David Prescott, Will Straw - all reported recently to be seeking to follow in their fathers' footsteps and enter the House of Commons. All have had access since birth to a social capital which future constituents, and sometimes their parents, did not. They are, literally, privilege's children.
Their story is a reminder of the way in which some left-wing politicians, bourgeois to a fault, are able first to manoeuvre their way up the ladder to wealth and advantage, and then to try to pull the ladder up behind them, thus preventing the poor from ascending towards greater prosperity and freedom. This is often what is going on when, say, Michael Gove's school reform programme is opposed. It is hard to know whether one should be more struck by the hypocrisy of such politicians - and angry too - or impressed by this surreptitious triumph of the hereditary principle. And it is tempting to wave the whole idea of equality away as a charade, before recalling that all Conservatives approve of at least one form of it.
There is an Equalities and Human Rights Commission - the most visible manifestation of the equalities industry. What sort of equality it favours is unclear from its title. It is thus a representation of how, during 13 years of government, Labour managed to blur the differences between equality of opportunity, which the public broadly supports, and equality of outcome, which it does not. Perhaps Tories have been so mesmerised by this sleight of hand, and demoralised by three Labour terms, as to have failed to fight a battle for the ownership of equality which they could surely win. As he utters the words that open this article, Steerpike tears the legs off a stag beetle. His championing of the wrong kind of equality masks his quest for tyranny.