Liz Truss, Michel Foucault, and Leo Tolstoy

By Bernadette Meaden
December 18, 2020

I never imagined Liz Truss would make me think of Tolstoy, but it’s been that kind of year. In a widely reported speech the Women and Equalities Minister criticised the debate on equality, claiming that it “overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality”. 

Ms Truss argued that certain protected characteristics like race and disability had become fashionable and, “This means some issues – particularly those facing white working-class children – have been neglected.” Now, this was quite ironic for a couple of reasons. Firstly because an expression of concern for ‘the white working class’ seems currently very fashionable in Conservative circles, as evidenced by the pages of the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Express and Spectator. But the far more serious and darker irony is that the reason these socio-economic factors have been neglected has been a direct result of deliberate Conservative policy and action.

The Equality Act 2010 was introduced by the last Labour government. Section 1 required public bodies to exercise their functions “in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.” But the Act only came into force on 1 October, when the Conservative-led Coalition government had taken office, and just seven weeks later, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the socio-economic duty part of it would be scrapped.

Mrs May said, “Just look at the socio-economic duty. It was meant to force public authorities to take into account inequality of outcome when making decisions about their policies. In reality, it would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.” 

With hindsight, this scrapping of the socio-economic duty was essential for what the Conservatives planned to do in Government. They went ahead with policies which not only reduced the life chances of the working class, but actually in some cases reduced life expectancy. Savage cuts to public services and welfare benefits would have been seriously hampered by any socio-economic duty under equalities legislation - so it was simply ditched. Technically it is still there, but has never been triggered and so cannot be enforced. As Dr Koldo Casla writes, “Had the socio-economic duty been in force, the government would have been unable to demonstrate how austerity policies were compatible with its international human rights obligations.”  Ten years later, Liz Truss is speaking as if it wasn’t her party which deliberately scrapped this inconvenient duty.

To list all the government policies and decisions over the past decade which would have breached the socio-economic duty would probably require a dedicated website, but we have seen their tragic culmination in the toll taken by COVID-19 in the poorest communities. As Professor Sir Michael Marmot says, “Before the pandemic, life-expectancy increase had stalled, inequalities were increasing, and life expectancy for the poorest people was going down. That was a measure that society wasn’t doing well.”

In The Lancet Professor Marmot attributed this to the rolling back of the state, and the regressive nature of government policies: “the poorer you were, the more likely you were to be disadvantaged by the changes government made. Whatever the reason for such clearly regressive policies – whether driven by some economic ideology, or rather grisly political calculations – their effect was to make the poor poorer and to deprive those in need of services.”

So whatever politicians say about equality, we must really judge them by what they do – and in the past decade they have done countless things which increased and entrenched inequality and injustice. The recent report on destitution by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows how the social security safety net which should prevent anyone falling below a certain level is now so threadbare it does not even prevent destitution. “Even before the COVID-19 outbreak destitution was rapidly growing in scale and intensity.” It’s all very well for government to talk about aspiration, ambition and social mobility, but if you really want children to do well, you must first make sure they are healthy, safe, warm and fed.

Amongst academics, Liz Truss’s speech caused some hilarity as she said that the ‘failed’ ideas of the Left have their roots in postmodernist philosophy, pioneered by Foucault. “In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative."

Historian Greg Jenner tweeted, “The Equalities Minister Liz Truss there, spectacularly rewriting Michel Foucault. Dare I suggest she hasn’t read any of his books? I think I do dare.” and many were quick to point out that in her speech, Ms Truss herself had failed to provide any evidence to back up some questionable claims. Today, parts of the speech have been removed from the government website.

Yet it wasn’t Foucault I thought of when hearing Truss’s speech. When she spoke as if the last ten years hadn’t happened, as if some other party had brought us to our current position, as if the Conservatives hadn’t abolished the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act, and as if Universal Credit does not drive working class people into debt and foodbank use, I thought of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote, “The present position which we, the educated and well-to-do classes, occupy, is that of the Old Man of the Sea, riding on the poor man’s back; only, unlike the Old Man of the Sea, we are very sorry for the poor man, very sorry; and we will do almost anything for the poor man’s relief. We will not only supply him with food sufficient to keep him on his legs, but we will teach and instruct him and point out to him the beauties of the landscape; we will discourse sweet music to him and give him abundance of good advice. Yes, we will do almost anything for the poor man, anything but get off his back.”

We should allow for the possibility that Liz Truss is sincere in wanting to address soci-oeconomic inequality. If that is the case, she will need to be prepared to push to reverse much the Conservatives have done for the past decade. And of course, implement the socio-economic duty of the Equality Act 2010, which in a sign of the increasing moral divergence from Westminster, is now in force in Scotland as the Fairer Scotland Duty, and will enter into force in Wales in March 2021. At the moment, the UK's Minister for Women and Equalities is not leading on socio-economic inequality, she is trailing badly.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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