Jolly little nothing

A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast “old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens”. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility. “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality” (my emphasis).

There’s not a lot to be said in favour of this speech (Jonathan Calder has a go, but even he baulks at the stuff about “new progressives”); there’s rather a lot to be said against it. It begins with a blatant strawman (“Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity” – oh really?) and a blinding glimpse of the obvious (“The question is not how much money the state is spending, it is how it spends it”); it doesn’t get much better from there on. Clegg never explains why he believes that achieving income equality would be a bad thing, let alone why increased social mobility is supposed to be an alternative to decreased inequality rather than a complement to it (or a result of it, for that matter).

“Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation,” Clegg writes, adding, in a typical sententious flourish, “That’s when societies become closed, stratified and divided.” There are a number of objections to this assertion. One is that, as Chris says, it makes it effectively impossible to know whether an individual government’s efforts to combat “injustice” have succeeded or failed:

Poverty … is easily measurable, with only a short lag: how many have an income less than 60% of the median? But social mobility can only be measured decades after policies have been implemented: it’ll take 30 years for us to tell whether the pupil premium has increased mobility. What Clegg is doing, therefore, is choosing ignorance: he’s asking for his actions to be judged by a measure that won’t be available until he’s long-forgotten.

We could also say that if (as Clegg strongly implies) inequalities only become injustices when they’re passed on, no inequality in this generation can possibly be unjust: you may think that the differential between your minimum-wage job and Sir Fred Goodwin’s wedge stinks to high heaven, but don’t jump to any conclusions – just wait another thirty years and see where your kids have ended up. This is unsatisfactory, to say the least. And I think we could be excused for finding it relevant that Clegg himself is exactly and precisely the beneficiary of an inequality that’s been passed on, generation to generation; his parents paid £29,000 a year at current values for his secondary education, and look at him now. (“I was very lucky to go to a great school,” Clegg told Kirsty Young. More to the point, he was lucky enough to be born in a household rich enough to send him to a very expensive school.)

But the main reason to object to the opposition between income equality and social mobility is that it makes no sense. Granting for the sake of argument that inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation, why wouldn’t it still be appropriate to intervene at the level of inequality? Even if they were fixed, smaller inequalities would mean smaller injustices. We can imagine a limit case: if taxes and benefits were manipulated to the point where everyone had exactly the same income, would social mobility be likely to increase or decrease? Mobility from a lower to a higher income would cease, by definition, but mobility in the more obvious sense of overcoming accidents of birth – being the daughter of a dinner lady and growing up to run the English National Opera, that kind of thing – would predictably increase. If nobody was running a large surplus of income over necessary expenditure (again, by definition) then no career or qualification could be restricted to those with lots of spare cash, as many careers and qualifications now are. But thinking about social mobility probably doesn’t come easy to Nicholas William Peter Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge), son of the chairman of a bank, grandson of a White Russian Baroness; perhaps he wasn’t really thinking about that kind of social mobility. Or any other kind.

As I said at the top, other people have been all over this. Sunder asks a polite but pertinent question:

If levels of inequality and income distribution by the state have little or nothing to do with social mobility, please name three “high inequality” or “small state” countries with comparatively high social mobility? Could he please explain what he thinks the drivers of high mobility are in Sweden and other societies which rank highest in the OECD?

Stuart quotes John Stuart Mill:

The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.

While you could argue that Mill’s open egalitarianism puts him towards the Left of the Liberal tradition, Stuart argues persuasively that Clegg’s outright indifference to unequal outcomes puts him right off the map: “The real choice, then, is not between the new and the old progressives. It is between Cleggism and liberalism.”

At the Third Estate, lastly, Reuben draws attention to some sharp practice in Clegg’s attempt to pass off the openly regressive Comprehensive Spending Review as in some sense progressive: the poor may be getting poorer, but hey, there’s the pupil premium, and NHS funding isn’t actually being cut, so they’re coming out ahead overall, right? (Sorry, that was Blair; Clegg’s just as self-righteous, but his tone is more Mr Collins than ‘rocking vicar’.) This harks back to Clegg’s response to the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the CSR – “People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS.” (You see what I mean about the tone.) Now, as it happens, this argument was demolished a month ago at Next Left. The reality is that the effect of the planned service cuts will be even more regressive than the proposed direct cuts to welfare: “the poorest ten per cent of households will be hit 15 times harder than the richest ten per cent as a result of service cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review”. But once again, let’s give Clegg the benefit of a doubt which doesn’t really exist, and assume that service provision can in some sense taking up the slack for cuts to benefits. But then… in what sense? Reuben:

Clegg essentially presents access to public services as interchangeable with cash income, when considering the impact of his and Cameron’s budget, as though the former were a perfect substitute for the latter. The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to exercise a bit of control over their day to day existence. Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed.

And that lack of autonomy – that endless grind of making do and doing without, never saying no to an extra shift and never saying Boo to the boss, that climate of daily anxiety and besetting fear for the future – that is precisely what makes talk of social mobility a bad joke. If you’re going to move up in the world, you need the leisure to plan for the future and the confidence to believe in your plans; you need to be able to take on unpaid or low-paid work, and to spend hours at a time making phone calls and sending emails; you need to go to the right events and make yourself known to the right people. In short, and to be brutally frank, you need to have money behind you. No amount of NHS funding (even if it were actually increasing, which it isn’t); no amount of improved schooling (even if there were any new money, which there isn’t); no amount of Sure Start childcare (even if it weren’t being cut, which it will be) will give an underpaid worker the chance to raise her head from the daily grind and think about social mobility. (Even if social mobility were an adequate solution to the injustice of present-day poverty, which it quite clearly isn’t.)

Nothing to me better sums up the vacuity of Clegg’s world-view than the words he uses to disparage any kind of redistributive approach to poverty.

Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with incomes currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty. The weakness of this approach is that significant resources end up being devoted to altering the financial position of these households by fairly small amounts – just enough, in many cases, to get them above the line. But poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness. It represents an approach to fairness dominated by the power of central state to shift money around, rather than to shift life chances.

One sentence in particular leapt out at me: “poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”. Maybe not, but it’s a hell of an improvement on poverty without the extra pound. I’ve done a variety of part-time and low-paid work for most of the last decade, some of it very part-time and very low-paid; I’m wearily familiar with the kind of forward-planning exercise that concludes “and if nothing else comes up I’ll be in trouble at the end of… that month“. The show has stayed on the road so far, and with any luck will do for some time yet, but there have been times – there have been months at a time – when I was acutely aware of the difference between what was going out and what was coming in. Mr Micawber’s figures need a bit of adjustment for inflation, but I can vouch for the principle:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short you are for ever floored.

(And your chances of social mobility are up the Swanee, we might add.)

I’ll hazard a wild guess that this is not an experience Nick Clegg has ever had. “Poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”, indeed. Poverty plus a pound represents release from poverty, and as such represents security, liberty and happiness; poverty plus a pound is, apart from anything else, a profoundly liberal goal. Warm words about social mobility, on the other hand – well, that and a pound will get you a cup of coffee. If you’ve got a pound to spare.

I think what I find most frustrating about this stuff isn’t what Clegg’s proposing but how badly he proposes it; how little sense he makes from sentence to sentence. In the paragraph I quoted above, for instance, we get no reason why an approach to fairness dominated by redistribution is so ineffective that it actually “does not represent fairness”; no explanation of why such an approach is opposed to one that tries to “shift life chances”; and not a word about what that approach would actually consist of (although leaving poor people in poverty seems to be an important part of it). I’ve read a lot of Tony Blair’s speeches quite closely; they’ve got lacunae you could drive a bus through, but next to this stuff Blair looks like Immanuel Kant.

I almost feel sorry for Clegg: he’s so clearly out of his depth. One explanation for this stuff would be that he’s personally a Tory (not a particularly left-wing one, either) and all he’s trying to do now is cover his retreat; even then you’d have to say that he’s making a very poor job of it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the reality is sadder and more complex: that he went into the Coalition genuinely believing he’d represent Liberalism in some form, but not realising either how hard the Tories intended to play or how shallow his own beliefs were. But one thing led to another, and now he seems to be on a train he can’t get off. I picture him as being haunted by the suspicion that some people in white coats are going to come into his office any moment and tell him it’s all been a gigantic experiment and now it’s time to go home. Sometimes, perhaps, he wishes they’d hurry up.


Googling “Nick Clegg lucky privileged” (for the quote about his school days) brought back this interesting story, from the Glasgow East by-election in 2008:

Mr Clegg’s attack on the Tory leader came after a speech which Mr Cameron made in the constituency on Monday. Mr Cameron appealed for a greater sense of public morality, saying politicians were too afraid to say what was right and wrong. In the most controversial section of his speech, the Tory leader said: “We talk about people being at risk of obesity, instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty or social exclusion – it’s as if these things, obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.”

And here’s Clegg’s riposte:

“You are certainly not going to get any hope from the Conservatives, whose leader had the arrogance to come here just recently and tell you that even if you are struggling on benefits, struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find a job, struggling to cope with poverty, that it’s your own fault and he won’t lift a finger to help you. … I think there is no excuse in politics for the lucky and the privileged to show such contempt for the poor and the forgotten.”

I agree with Nick.



  1. Posted 27 November 2010 at 12:24 | Permalink | Reply

    As far as being out of his depth is concerned, I think that might be right: he reminds me of a lot of what were SDP types when I was a student, all of them under the impression that they were really bright, keen to become what we would now call an intern, Euro-enthusiasts, lñiked nothing better than a policy paper. And they yet didn’t really have a clue about anything outside their limited experience: they vastly overrated their academic qualifications and their position at Oxbridge as markers of how knowledgeable they were. (I can think of one little dickhead recently on Crooked Timber who might fit this description.)

    So off to London, or to Europe they later went, doing something very very important, understanding things so much better than everybody else: and now, of course, cuts and redundancies and homelessness are something other people don’t really understand are necessary. They just don’t see, you see.

    I always hated them. Not that that did any good then, or for that matter does any good now.

  2. Posted 27 November 2010 at 12:29 | Permalink | Reply

    I’ll hazard a wild guess that this is not an experience Nick Clegg has ever had.

    Johann Hari was making the same point a few weeks ago.

    It shouldn’t go unsaid, by the way, that one of the benefits of that extra pound is that it reduces dependency, rather than creating it. The person who, as a result of the welfare state, had secure accommodation and some money in their pocket, was less dependent than the person who previously, did not. They were not dependent on the Chruch or the Sally Army or whoever it might have been. They were not dependent on the willingness of their landlord to defer their rent, or the willingness of the shopkeeper to run a slate, or the kindness of a passerby. They had a little independence.

    Nobody who matters believes this any more, of course, but then again, nobody who matters has ever found themselves one step from the street.

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