Roy Hattersley

on equality, fairness and faith

Roy Hattersley | Photo: Guzelian

You have chosen to talk in The Salter Lecture about the word ‘equality’. The word ‘fairness’ is more fashionable.  Equality and fairness are not the same thing. During an election campaign I was once asked to stop saying ‘equality’ and say ‘fairness’. My reply was that everybody believes in fairness.  You dislike ‘fairness’?  Fairness is a ‘weak concept’. Equality is a hard concept – it has definite edges. You can see it and recognise it. Equality is the great abiding belief of my entire life. What society needs is a more equal distribution of power and wealth.

Is ‘fairness’ used, specifically, in a way you dislike?

Fairness can mean whatever you want it to mean. The philosophers I most oppose – of the right – all believe in fairness. They define ‘fairness’ as not expropriating your salary and giving it away to the lower paid through taxes. They say it is not ‘fair’. I think that is nonsense.

Equality is an important Quaker testimony. It is rooted in faith. Where does this belief come from in you?

It is part environmental. I come from a Labour family. It is part, I hope, intellectual. It is also saint Paul. But there have been some incidents in my life that drove it home.

I remember at the end of the sixth form at Sheffield Grammar School working on a milk round – waiting to go up to university – and we were delivering milk in a poor part of Sheffield.

You got a bottle of milk if you put out a token. You bought the token beforehand and at the end of the week there were some people who did not have tokens. They had run out of money.

The regular milkman said to me: ‘If they are deserving cases this is what we do. If she brings out a jug we carefully take the foil cover off the bottle. We pour the milk in to the jug. We then put the foil top back on. We then smash the bottle and we say that the bottle has been lost, smashed, and that is what we do with deserving cases.’

I remember first of all thinking I don’t want to live in a society in which you have to do this for people because they cannot afford milk. I was eighteen.

Personal experience?

Yes. Then the milkman said: ‘But we don’t do it for everybody. If we see a woman smoking she should be spending the money on milk and not on cigarettes.’
And then I thought that I don’t want to live in a society in which judgments about need are made according to your prejudices against behaviour. I hate smoking but it didn’t seem to me right that one individual was entitled to say: ‘This woman is entitled to milk and this woman is not.’

There have been a lot of incidents like that in my life that have hammered home my instinctive view that the equal society is a good society.

Quakers, along with many other groups, are concerned with the growing gulf between rich and poor. How do you create a more equal society?

The growing gap between rich and poor is one of the great blemishes on the Labour Party record. It can only be addressed by government action. It can’t be addressed by individual acts of charity. The only way you can have a real attack on poverty is by state intervention – that means taxes at the top of the income scale and more redistribution at the bottom of the income scale.

The Spirit Level. Its an important book?

Absolutely. The Spirit Level is a vindication of everything that people like me hoped for. What we hoped was true – The Spirit Level provides evidence to confirm that it was true. Equal societies have less juvenile crime, less violence, less drug taking, less teenage pregnancy, less obesity.

You believe in equality – but you accept the market?

I believe in some ways there has to be a market. If I look around this room: furniture, lamps, flowers, crockery, if you have those things allocated rather than distributed by a market – well, it is a tyranny – what you had in the Soviet Union before glasnost.
Nobody wants that sort of a society. But there are some things that are inappropriate to the market and basic to our lives – education, health, welfare, pensions.

There is that phrase: ‘The Labour party owes more to Methodism than Marx.’ What do you feel about the phrase ‘Christian Socialism’ today?
I am a Christian Socialist without being a Christian. I used to say Tony Blair was a Christian Socialist without being a socialist. Christian Socialism is a view of society. It means more than a belief in Christianity. It means believing in a concept of society – a society in which we live together and we accept that we do better in a community than as individuals and that, I suppose, has its basis in the Sermon on the Mount. So the precepts of Christian Socialism I support entirely. I have no beliefs. I am an atheist. It is as simple as that.

Tony Blair believed that the market was necessary and could provide solutions?

Tony Blair believed that the market provided maximum efficiency and that it was a convenient and a fair way of distributing resources. The so-called ‘choice agenda’ in which I can decide which hospital I want to go to is in a sense the market. It is available to everybody – but the confident, the articulate and the educated make the best choice. My old constituents in inner city Birmingham make a different choice, because they spoke English as a second language, were timid about authority and didn’t have the assertive qualities that are necessary to elbow your way through the health service. Markets do not work with efficiency some claim – as the banks have demonstrated.

In the history of Quakerism some Friends were successful capitalists and philanthropic employers. There is also a strain in Quakerism of ‘economic democracy’. What do you feel about this tradition?

I support it. It has different forms. I favour cooperative organisations – consumer cooperatives rather than producer cooperatives – because I think if you are a producer it is easy to manipulate the process against the consumer.

You are an atheist but you admire some Christians. You went with the Salvation Army a number of times to see their work with the homeless – and you wrote movingly about this.

I got into trouble in The Guardian when I wrote in my column: Why is it that Christians have so much more compassion than atheists? This is the phrase that got me in trouble. You read about Christian Aid. You never read about atheist aid. Those ladies working for the Salvation Army were some of the most impressive people I ever met. I admire the Salvation Army, not its religious position, but its compassion, its help for the poor, and the way they treat them.

The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army share with the Quakers a belief in being non-judgemental.

That is important. We ought to provide help according to need.

Have you had much contact with Quakers?

I went to a Quaker Meeting once in Sheffield. I have an old friend of fifty years who is a Quaker. He has been ill and he is coming to our house to recuperate. He took me to a Quaker Meeting but nobody was moved to speak. The Quakers I knew were impressive people, upright people, slightly intimidating people. I also knew a Quaker and he told me about George Fox. I always thought I might write a biography of Fox because of what he told me about Fox nearly fifty years ago.

You have written biographies of strong religious figures: John Wesley and William Booth. Why?

I admire men of deep belief. Men of conviction. Men who say: ‘Here I stand because I can do no other.’ The opportunity to write about Wesley was driven partly, also, because I was given access to some important early papers. I like men who stick to their principles.

Is that also a Yorkshire characteristic?

Perhaps. I haven’t changed my principles since I was eighteen. I have tried to apply my principles to changing situations. They used to say you still believe in equality but equality hasn’t worked and I used to say that if Robin Day was interviewing the archbishop of Canterbury: he wouldn’t say to him ‘You still believe in The Sermon on the Mount but it hasn’t worked – why don’t you think of something new?’

John Wesley said: ‘To create a new world you need a new man.’ But to create a new man you need to create new physical and social conditions – as the Quaker Cadbury did at a Bournville – and Clement Attlee did in 1944. Why is this important to you?

From my experience. Many of the problems of the world – some of which we call crime and some of which we call sin – are the result of environment. It is no coincidence that young men who have been to Eton don’t pick pockets, don’t sleep rough at night and don’t mug old ladies.

Economic circumstances?

Yes, your economic circumstances, not entirely, but to a degree, do determine your behaviour. Take Tony Blair’s nostrum: ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. Tough on the causes of crime was inserted by Gordon Brown. He said it is no good being tough on criminals unless you alleviate the situations that breed criminals. I believe this absolutely.
The problems in my old constituency, which had great deprivation, were almost always because the young man was unemployed, the woman did not have enough to live on, the kids were neglected because they were poor. If you change conditions you change people.

How do you create better conditions?

By raising money through taxation and spending it on social provision. One of the shameful facts about thirteen years of New Labour was how we neglected affordable housing. We built virtually no affordable housing for ten years. The inner cities have got more and more decrepit and more and more the cauldrons of crime.

What is the best of Christianity and what is the worst?

The worst is the occasional dogmatism. The Catholic church’s views on homosexuality and on birth control, for example, particularly as it applies to Africa. The best of Christianity is its compassion. Many Christians I know have an instinctive compassion that comes from their Christianity.


‘In praise of Equality’, the Salter Lecture by Roy Hattersley, is on Friday 28 May at 4pm at Friends House, London.

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