Thursday, 18 August 2011

Does John Redwood care about inequality?

A peculiar article in The Guardian yesterday. Funny in the first instance because of the mental image it suggests – John Redwood choking on his cornflakes as it dawns on him that the left might not see him as a tireless campaigner for social justice, devoting his life to protecting the vulnerable. Peculiar because halfway through, Redwood seems to lose the thread of his argument, and begin to make the exact opposite case to the one he intended to.

The article itself is a furious reply to a throwaway remark from John Harris’ column the day before. Bemoaning David Cameron’s abandonment of his initial progressive credentials, Harris contrasts him with Redwood: “There is no point in people like me having a pop at, say, John Redwood for his failure to recognise the importance of inequality. But Cameron was meant to be slightly different.”

What’s clear from this quote is that Redwood is seen as an old-style Tory, antagonistic to the left, while Cameron is a new progressive Tory, sympathetic to many lefty causes. So there’s obviously supposed to be something that Cameron and Harris believe, but that Redwood does not. Call this ‘common ground X’.

Redwood takes common ground X to be concern for the poor, which is why he is so cross at the implication that he does not share it. Consequently, his whole article is devoted to demonstrating that the right simply have a different idea of what sort of policies most benefit the poor.

But that’s not what Harris says. Harris is quite explicit that what distinguishes Cameron and Redwood is their attitudes to inequality. Not their attitudes to the poor – their attitudes to inequality. Hence his reference to Cameron’s appreciation for the The Spirit Level, a book that argues that inequality is bad for society, regardless of how materially well-off the poor are.

Redwood’s sub-editor seems to have appreciated this, given that the title of his article is ‘It's ludicrous to say that rightwingers don't care about inequality’.

But Redwood, intent on demonstrating that rightwingers care about the poor, seems to forget that he was supposed to be arguing about inequality. In fact, his argument shows that for those on the right, caring about the poor involves embracing inequality. An excessive focus on reducing inequality, Redwood argues, risks cutting off the source of wealth that would eventually trickle down to the poor. Moreover, it involves engaging in ‘jealousy’, and undermines aspiration.

So John Redwood doesn’t care about inequality, even if he does care about the poor.

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