Conservatives on inequality
Nov 25, 2006
Bishop Hill

The Conservatives recent shouting match over poverty has been nothing if not fun to watch. At least one Conservative blogger was moved to a swearblogging extravaganza that would have made DK proud.

I have come to the conclusion that Clark has no brain. In fact, I reckon that when he was a kid, his parents cracked open his skull, scooped out the minimal grey matter contained within, and then elected to use their child’s skull as a latrine/toilet bowl. Because there is no other logical explanation for the absolute shite spewing from Clark’s mouth. There is no other reason why an adviser to the Leader of the Opposition would be chomping at the minge of the atrocious Toynbee. There is no other reason why a member of the Tory Shadow Cabinet, just as the party stands for the first time since 1997 within grasping distance of power, would turn to the fucked up, unworkable policies of the twat Polly – policies so inane that even the Liberal Democrats would think twice before advocating them.

What would have made DK even happier the author's intention to join UKIP.

Today, Matthew Parris attempts to defend Greg Clark's report:

Pointless, I suppose, to recommend looking at the original document rather than media reports of it, but you should. The headlines were all about Winston Churchill and Polly Toynbee, but Mr Clark’s paper for the Conservative Party’s Social Justice Policy Group is not, in fact, an attack on Churchill and nor is it a headlong rush into the embrace of a female left-wing Guardian columnist.

Like everyone else, I have only read the headlines and so, goaded by Mr Parris, I tracked down a copy of Greg Clark's paper. It's here. And I must say, it seems to me to be pretty much as reported. While Polly Toynbee is mentioned only once in passing, it seems to me that the key sense of the report has been accurately related and that Matthew Parris' insinuation that it is otherwise is disingenuous.

The thrust of the paper is that we should accept the left's redefinition of poverty:

In the absence of significant levels of absolute poverty, one cannot accept that poverty is a real phenomenon in contemporary Britain unless one is defining it in relative terms. So what Letwin, Willetts and Duncan Smith all said implicitly, we should now say explicitly: Poverty must be defined in relation to changing social norms. We should reject completely the notion that poverty can be defined in absolute terms alone.
Let's be absolutely clear. What we are talking about is inequality, not poverty. We have two words with distinct meanings. Poverty means a lack of material possessions. Inequality means having less than other people.  Anyone who believes in honesty in public life should refuse to accept this Orwellian redefinition of the one thing as the other. Conservatives should be denouncing it.


Clark himself recognises what he is doing:

Whether one wants to call it poverty or not, this huge increase in income inequality has been rightly described as “one of the biggest social changes in Britain since the Second World War.”

So let's look at the logic of Clark's case using the proper terminology - namely inequality.

Firstly he attempts to make the case that inequality is a problem that needs addressing. In a section called "The Problem with Safety Nets" he writes:

In an age when absolute poverty [sic] a real danger for millions of people, the safety net represented an enormous advance. But in our own age, our ambitions should be higher. As individuals we should all have the chance to move forward and as a nation we should move forward with a sense of cohesion.

This will leave any critical reader completely in the dark as to what the problem with inequality is.  He might also ask "Why should our ambitions be higher?" and what on earth "moving forward with a sense of cohesion" means. It might also occur to him to question whether any of proposed solutions might bring such a sense of cohesion about. There is another section called "Social Exclusion Matters" in which we are told that inequality "separates the poor from the mainstream of society". Again we are not told what this means. Clark unfortunately spends most of the rest of the paper trying to justify his acceptance of an Orwellian bastardisation of the English language and leaves us none the wiser.

He goes on to consider the history of poverty and inequality during the eighties. He demonstrates that poverty has been falling, but that inequality has risen. He looks at the reasons for rising inequality - two earner versus no-earner households in the main - then, hilariously, he seems to get confused by his own redefinition and tells us that

In large part beyond the control of the state, the extraordinary confluence of these factors programmed rising poverty and inequality into the system. 

Two pages earlier, you will recall, he told us that poverty had fallen. My advice would be to say "inequality" when you mean inequality and "poverty" when you mean poverty. It's simpler that way.

Having failed to demonstrate that there is a problem and having become disorientated by his own terminological manglings Clark sees fit to tell us what Conservatives should think.  

The answer is, apparently, to accept the definition of "poverty" which has just so confused him. He also talks about redistribution, and says that the Conservative party has always redistributed. It is of course a fallacy, an argumentum ad antiquitam, to invoke past actions in support of future policy. The question that needs to be asked is whether redistribution has worked. It hasn't of course, and the determination to continue with redistribution despite this fact is why so many people think it's time to leave the Conservatives.

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