Page 6, 20th July 2001

20th July 2001
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Page 6, 20th July 2001 — Equality: the principle that dare not speak its name
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Equality: the principle that dare not speak its name

Personal view Jill Segger

As New Labour begins its second term, the time is ripe to risk the accusation that egalitarians are the enemies of enterprise and achievement by asking whether Tony Blair's determination to create a meritocratic society is above criticism.

No egalitarian will argue with the desirability of removing the obstacles which prejudice has placed in the path of hard-working men and women who do not have a middle class accent or postcode. For too long, the talents of millions of our people have been wasted and their life chances diminished by unintelligent self-interest on the part of many who have received every advantage of birth and education.

It is right that a government which claims — despite increasing evidence to the contrary — to stand on the centre-left should seek to redress this injustice and to create a climate in which the capable and the industrious may thrive whatever their social origins. But in what passes for ideology amongst New Labour's policy makers, the concept of meritocracy has replaced the pursuit of equality.

Meritocracy is a comfortable doctrine for the successful but it demeans those who have been unable to overcome the difficulties arising from their social and physical environment or genetic makeup. The simplistic linking of success with merit implies that a state of poverty indicates a lack of worth; thus are consciences eased amongst those who find it convenient to believe that the poor are the authors of their own misfortune and that a growing underclass may therefore be abandoned to its fate.

There will always be individuals whose extraordinary powers of will and intellect enable them to rise from unpromising backgrounds to high achievement. To use such exceptional people as admonitory examples is as cruel as it is stupid. I recently spent some time in a pocket of deprivation within a town not noted for high levels of poverty. You may see much that is obviously worse in the post-industrial communities of northern England or on the high-rise estates of inner London. Nonetheless, all the dismal indicators of disadvantage were present. Children excluded or truanting from a school in "special measures" hung around the shops; estates were bounded by waste land behind high fences bearing notices warning of contamination and young women pushing prams wore that desperate look — at once blank and bitter — which is so often the characteristic countenance of powerlessness.

I spoke with one such woman: she was bringing up three children alone, one of whom was "in trouble". Her appearance was uncared for and she was seriously overweight — malnutrition amongst the poor and depressed in a food-rich society frequently manifests itself as obesity. It would have been idle to suggest to her that opportunities for advancement were there for the taking; that all she needed to do was pull herself together, lose three stone, avail herself of training or further education and seek the kind of employment that would enable her to move away from the environment which was so damaging to her and to her children. One might as well claim that if Linford Christie and I were to enter the starting blocks together, the outcome would be just on the grounds that the track was open to us both.

Those who are handicapped by the cumulative effects of poverty need far more longterm help and ungrudging support than they are presently receiving if they are even to reach the starting line from which the meritocrats sprint away so eagerly.

Pelagianism is as detrimental to the health and cohesion of society as it is to spiritual well-being. As the gap between rich and poor grows wider, the warnings are there if we will heed them. Nick Griffin, leader of the B1s1P, is on record as believing that his party could become "the focus of the hopes of the neglected and oppressed white working class".

A govenunent that will not strive to eradicate inequality because it is the right thing to do, will eventually find itself forced to act by increasing crime and disorder. Bradford will not be an isolated incident, nor — to our everlasting shame — will the tragedy of James Bulger, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.




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