Toynbee and the tossers

The Tories' adoption of Guardianista Polly Toynbee as their latest guru shows how degraded is contemporary thinking on equality.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

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The row over a Guardian columnist becoming a Tory guru perfectly illustrates the failure of mainstream commentators to understand a fundamental shift in political debate. Although many of the key terms are unchanged from the past, the different context in which they are used has transformed their meaning. This shift is particularly important in relation to the concept central to this spat: equality.

Last week’s row began with a frontpage story in the Guardian (1). Greg Clark, a Conservative MP, had evidently written a paper arguing that the Tories should ditch Winston Churchill for Polly Toynbee as their inspiration. Since Clark is a key policy adviser to David Cameron, the Tory leader, the paper was seen as marking a shift in official Conservative thinking. The Tories had decided to emphasise the notion of relative poverty rather than absolute poverty as a key factor in social policy. Later in the week Cameron himself made a speech along similar lines (2)

The response to the Conservative initiative was predictably blinkered. Toynbee, long associated with the left, crowed in a Guardian column that: ‘It can only be good news if the Tories are serious about poverty.’ (3) Boris Johnson, a traditionalist Conservative MP, wrote a sarcastic attack on Toynbee in the Daily Telegraph: ‘In so far as New Labour has a fairy godmother, Polly is the girl. She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. She is the defender and friend of everyone whose non-job has ever been advertised in the Guardian appointments page, every gay and lesbian outreach worker, every clipboard-toter and pen-pusher and form-filler whose function has been generated by mindless regulation. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism.’ (4)

What all sides of the debate missed is that it is 2006 rather than 1986. The idea of equality – in many ways the defining concept of political debate for two centuries – has transformed in meaning. Those who upheld the idea of equality used to do so as part of a struggle for a better life for all. The idea was to fight for equality so that the potential of all of humanity could be realised. Today, in contrast, the prevalent outlook refuses to accept that the future could be better than the present. In the current context, the demand for equality is a call for levelling down and rationing. The contemporary critics of inequality typically want everyone to make do with less rather than to have more. Often they also want people to behave in what they regard as a ‘responsible’ way.

To understand this shift, it is illuminating to go back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the political revolutions associated with it. It was the thinkers of the Enlightenment who first developed the modern concepts of equality and humanity (5). Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously wrote in The Social Contract (1762) that: ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ Rousseau thought there was a natural human equality that was only thwarted by an unequal society. Similarly, Condorcet argued that ‘the final end of the social art’ would be ‘real equality’ – ‘the abolition of inequality between nations’ and ‘the progress of equality within each nation’. This progress would ultimately lead to ‘the true perfection of mankind’ (6).

Such ideas were embodied into the political revolutions of the time. America’s Declaration of Independence (1776) stated: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ The slogan of the French Revolution of 1789 was even more emphatic: ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort!’ (Freedom, equality, fraternity, or death!) This phrase clearly linked the struggle for equality with a broader fight for freedom and a common humanity. Whoever coined the slogan left no doubt about the importance of equality or its link to the battle to realise the human potential.

The French Revolution was particularly important as it defined the concepts of left and right for the next two centuries. Originally the terms derived from the seating arrangements in the French legislative assembly, with royalists on the right and radicals on the left. Over time the left took on a more general meaning of those who favoured equality and freedom while the right upheld the established order. In the 200 years that followed, the left had many variants, including those who favoured gradual change and those who proposed violent revolution. But all had in common a belief in striving for equality as a way of achieving a better life for all.

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see the shortcoming and inconsistencies of many of those who advocated equality. For example, slavery existed in America for almost a century after the Declaration of Independence. Women did not achieve universal suffrage in most countries until the early twentieth century. Both Britain and France maintained widespread empires until the mid-twentieth century. And often there were huge inequalities in wealth despite a professed belief in equality.

Despite these limitations, the widespread support for equality was extremely important. It was a way for those on the left to show their belief in the human potential. The mass of society was seen as capable of living better than it had achieved at any given time.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989 a pervasive pessimism has set in. This mood did not come about simply as a result of the demise of the Soviet bloc. It represented the outcome of a combination of setbacks for the left, including the Great Depression, fascism, two World Wars and the Holocaust. But it was the experience of the late 1980s that, at least for the time being, seemed to indicate it was not possible to transform the world for the better. As Living Marxism, a magazine then edited by spiked editor Mick Hume, noted in December 1990: ‘The left, as a force that represents something in society, no longer exists.’ (7)

Under such circumstances it is not surprising that the concept of equality should be interpreted in a fundamentally different way. The prevalent mood of pessimism means that the possibility of a better, wealthier society is viewed with fear. For example, environmentalism – which has become a mainstream intellectual trend – is characterised by its dim view of human potential. The idea that humanity is guilty of ‘over-consumption’ has become widespread. From such a perspective, criticisms of inequality are about demanding that we all consume less rather than arguing that everyone is entitled to more.

One of the main areas in which this new understanding of equality is apparent is the discussion of climate change. In the past, the prevalent reaction to environmental problems would have been to argue that the richer we are, the better a position we are in to deal with them. Today, in contrast, the conclusion that is typically drawn is the need for rationing, often with behaviour modification thrown in. In this respect, Polly Toynbee – Guardian columnist, trenchant critic of inequality and the new Tory party ideologue – is typical: ‘In the end, fair rationing is the only way. Despite recent price rises, energy in Britain is almost the cheapest in the EU. Only huge energy taxes would change most people’s habits.’ (8) The Conservative party under Cameron has expressed comparable views.

A similar desire to rein in consumption was apparent in the Tory’s ‘tosser’ campaign launched last week (9). The campaign urges people to curb their spending rather than find themselves in debt. Its website includes a video with a voiceover taking a particularly dim view of humanity: ‘Inside all of us lives a conniving, dirty, little parasite – “the tosser within”. He wants you to spend, spend and keep spending until you’re in terrible debt. Ignore the tosser inside you! Take control of your money.’ (10)

The Tory’s embrace of Polly Toynbee, along with her critique of inequality, does not represent a shift to the left. On the contrary, it indicates a dearth of political ideas on both sides. All they have is a dislike of popular consumption and an uncontrollable urge to regulate our behaviour. The tossers deserve each other.

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(1) Tania Branigan Cameron told: it’s time to ditch Churchill, Guardian, 22 November 2006

(2) Edward Davie Cameron commits Tories to tackling poverty,, 24 November 2006

(3) Polly Toynbee, If Cameron can climb on my caravan, anything is possible, Guardian, 23 November 2006

(4) Boris Johnson, Polly Toynbee the Tory guru: that’s barking, or maybe not, Daily Telegraph, 23 November 2006

(5) See Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race, Macmillan 1996

(6) Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture for the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) quoted in Gareth Stedman Jones An End to Poverty? Profile 2004, p18

(7) Frank Richards, ‘Midnight in the century’, Living Marxism, December 1990

(8) Polly Toynbee, Britain can still lead the world – on climate change, Guardian, 8 August 2006

(9) See Rob Lyons, The Tory Tossers

(10) The video can be viewed on the Sort-It website.

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Topics Politics


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