Liz Truss’s speech today at the Centre for Policy Studies is ten years overdue. Its topic will be equality. It will mark the first time in four terms of Conservative-led government that a Cabinet Minister has given a major speech on the subject.
This tells us much we need to know before she has said a single word. All in all, successive Tory leaderships have been terrified of the subject.
That fear is a legacy of the Cameron modernisation project, and its acceptance of some of the terms of public debate set by Tony Blair. If the Conservatives challenged them, its logic ran, they would be confirmed as “nasty”.
By contrast, we hope that the very first thing Truss does today is to confront them, because they defy both political and common sense. Which equality? Equality before the law? Equality of outcome? Equality of opportunity? An equality of esteem?
If government muddles these up, a mess will duly follow – and it has. Equality and its twin, diversity, are together rather like Lord Denning’s famous incoming tide of European law: “it flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back”.
On and on they surge, breaking banks and flooding land: unconscious bias training, “Rhodes must fall”, critical race theory, “silencing”, sex as gender, “safe spaces”, Islamophobia – all alike are a product of the impulse that liberal western democracies oppress beleaguered oppressed minorities.
You may object that this site itself is mixing up a mass of different phenomena. But the claim that history tells a simple tale of white people oppressing black people is the template from which similar stories about other groups of people have been fashioned.
One of the interesting features of recent years is that it is ethnic minority members themselves who have taken the lead in challenging this thinking. In which context we cite one of ConservativeHome’s contributors, now himself an adviser to the Government.
Raghib Ali has pointed out on this website that a simplistic view which sees racism as driving injustice is wrong. “Racism still blights too many lives today,” he wrote recently, “but Britain is not a racist country and what has been achieved in my lifetime is remarkable with my children growing up in a country transformed”.
“The greatest determinant of your life chances today is not the colour of your skin but the circumstances into which you are born – and we must tackle this enduring injustice of ‘systemic classism’ to create a fairer Britain for all,” he said, citing figures showing that “the primary factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race”.
Ali contributed to the Government’s report on Covid disparities, which reached much the same conclusion, and Truss is sure to take it up today. Here are some of the points she will make and some of those that she should make – for which she would need Downing Street fully to back her up.
First, that government should be clear that maximising equality of opportunity, not outcome, is its aim – insofar as nature and nurture allow. Perhaps the Government would do better simply to say that it wants to help create more opportunities.
Second, that countering systemic classism should indeed be a policy objective. It is the driver, for example, of white British boys being the least likely members of any ethnic group to progress to higher education. George W.Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” is at work here with a vengeance.
Third, that just because Ministers can’t do everything doesn’t mean that they should do nothing – and they are making a start. Kemi Badenoch has cracked down on the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Oliver Dowden has told museums not to remove objects. Truss herself dropped previous plans for gender self-identification.
Finally, that essential to pursuing this approach would be the replacement of Labour’s Equality Act with a Conservative Opportunity Act. This would separate necessary anti-discrimination legislation, which should be preserved, from the parts of the act that need revision, such as the sections on protected characteristics.
Truss is one of the few Cabinet Ministers capable not only of taking on such a programme but doing so with relish – despite her formidable commitments elsewhere to strike post-Brexit trade deals, lauded recently by Mark Wallace, who pointed out earlier this week that she has sorted 57 of them (a figure doubtless already out of date).
A leitmotif of our inexhaustible series of profiles of Truss is that she is always up for a rumble in the jungle – intellectually speaking. Brainy, quirky, and possessed of the belief that attack is the best form of defence, this recent topper of our Cabinet League Table has the self-confidence to wade in where more timid Ministers fear to tread.
A potential pitfall is that her call for “freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity” – well-trailed in today’s papers – could be followed only by the rustling murmur of Whitehall paper-shuffling, with the Equalities Hub moving from place a) to place b), and the Social Mobility Commission from department c) to department d).
And there are limits to what Truss can achieve without Boris Johnson’s full support. She wants to “pivot away from quotas, targets, unconscious bias training and diversity statements”, but her room for manoeuvre in doing so will be cramped if Labour’s Equality Act isn’t overhauled.
Its Public Sector Equality Duty is one of the drivers of the statements, training, quotas and targets to which she objects. And while the Act listed protected characteristics it did nothing to explain what should be done when they clash, chucking that hospital pass into the laps of the judges instead.
A test of her speech today will be whether or not it opens the door to reform. The Prime Minister himself, perhaps shaken by the mauling of his famous Daily Telegraph column about the burqa, (he opposed a ban), has become extremely cautious on these matters.
One of that article’s most eloquent defenders was Munira Mirza, now the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit – a cause taken up by her on ConservativeHome. She is a driver of the Government’s new approach, and will want to ensure that the Conservative Manifesto’s commitments on free speech are honoured, especially in universities.
To be fair to Labour, that equality duty specifies equality of opportunity. But to be fair again, it also sabotaged the foundations of fairness, by adopting the Macpherson Report’s definition of a racist incident: “any incident which is perceived to be racist, either by the victim or by any other person”.
By stripping responsibility, or the lack of it, from the alleged perpetrator, this development was profoundly unjust. It underpins much of what has followed, such as hate crime.
It’s worth summoning up one of his slogans of the government that preceded Blair’s – John’s Major’s. It was “Opportunity for All”. That’s as good a thumbnail sketch of the best of the Conservative tradition as one is likely to get. Now let’s see how Truss, with her focus on the individual rather than the collective, gets on today.