16 May 2010

What does Cameron mean by "fairness"?

Ian Bell has an article in the Sunday Herald this morning arguing that "alma maters matter", in which he pays particularly close and critical attention to  David Cameron and Nick Clegg's educations in the windswept penal colonies of Eton College and Westminster School, Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Bell asks one particularly apt question of Cameron, or rather, invites to those of us who listen when the Tory's lips move to reflect on this point.  When the new Prime Minister talks about fairness - "what does David Cameron imagine the word to mean?" I've been banging on about precisely this point myself.  Fairness, of itself, discloses almost nothing in terms of substantive policy, substantive decisions.  It rules in very little, it rules almost nothing out. It is worth remembering that the National Party in South Africa instituted and pursued the policies apartheid and "racial" segregation, based on some conception of fairness, however warped and degenerate that conception might appear. While it is tempting, sorely tempting to put that pernicious dispensation in a different category wholly distinct from wur ain - we should resist that temptation. This South African parallel isn't meant as a low blow - merely to highlight the amazing elasticity of appeals to be acting fairly.

We can find other examples, closer to home, more closely bound up in the contemporary political position. Merely reflect on the fact that in the election campaign, Brown, Cameron and Clegg all claimed that their party embodied the virtue of fairness. So what were they really saying? I'll suggest three options. Firstly, they might have been arguing - we all agree, so your choice as an elector is merely to decide which one of us has better hair. Or perhaps we might admit a bit of deviation in the ranks. This gives rise to option two. Here, appeals to fairness are reformulated to the extent that it is argued that our party is fairer than his, and his party is fairer than his. Like wheezy old nags, in the gluey gallop for fairness, this version sees all three party groups gasp their last closer to or further from the final fairway line. Although largely a rhetorical trick, we should notice that fairness is here imagined as substantially the same for all of our trotters. One group may come closer to embodying or realising fairness' imperatives, but they're all running in the same race. The third formulation dismantles the civilities of lanes, making crooked the previously straight ways of the fair. Here, it is starkly admitted that Brown's fairness is distinct from Clegg's, from Cameron's. Like Venn diagrams, there may certainly be overlapping sections, shared substantial portions. We shouldn't mistake this overlapping  consensus for fundamental or straightforward agreement, however.

Try thinking about it this way. You have a friend with whom you regularly debate the issues of the day over a pint or two in the cool crepuscular evenings. Used to fundamental disagreement and bantering controversy, one evening you are surprised to learn that you and your interlocutor seem to agree on some particular policy concern.  As you explore the reasons for his support, however, your friend begins producing arguments which turn you green, unfix your hair and make your seated heart knock uncomfortably against your ribs. His principles disgust you. "That's not right!" you interject, but as he smoothly reminds you "... we agree, my friend. We're on the same side of this. For once..." Your discomfort is likely to be exquisite, your frustration difficulty to express. Why?

Firstly because the impoverished binary analysis, very familiar in the press, which asks - which side are you on? for or against? - isn't terrifically interested in the reasoning behind policy proposals. Its insistent question is, should we do x or not do x?  While agreement on what we should do probably matters more than the reasoning procedures which lead us to a final decision, if we're going to understand  political agreements between those who disagree - and in particular, understand this Con-Dem coalition - we're going to need to learn to make analytical space for the gap between concepts and conclusions. In particular, we're going to have to get used to the idea that radically incompatible premisses can lead to the same substantive policy outcomes.

One good example of the strange, poised alliances which can form can be seen in the evidence-taking process which informed Holyrood's Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009. LGBT groups advocated the introduction of an offence of male rape on the grounds of equitable public recognition of victimisation. The Catholic Parliamentary Office, by contrast, supported the same legislative section on the basis of the 'inherently disordered' nature of homosexual intercourse. Like the discussion between you and your friend in the pub, agreement can be far more uncomfortable than disagreement at times. The press-pairing of for or against makes you new, unattractive friends. Like the preceding pub-stool discourse, your conscience likely smarts at the awkwardness of it all. Perhaps you will try to convince your friend to share your reasoning, not satisfied that he is willing to support the same end as you are. Your vanity vainly hangs on to your principled reasoning. His bemused smile probably grows wider, hardly understanding your discomfort and hardly seeing the point of further discussion. Reflect a little. You'll see that examples of just this sort of awkwardness abound. Religious beliefs meeting the politics of unbelievers provide a particularly common example. Unwillingness to notice the essential difference at work here is a cause of much discomfort and much redundant discussion. Loose talk about fairness is problematic, precisely because it isn't owing up to its premisses or what it means to disagree about fairness.

Its not, I should stress, that I'm objecting to workmanlike consensus. The alternative could only fabricate a brittle politics. I'm merely suggesting that we should prepare ourselves for the existential anxieties which consensus on ends invariably conceal. Anxieties profoundly likely to surface, profoundly tensely, in the course of the term of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat Westminster Government.  Bemusing for or against questions won't serve us well, as we try to understand the dynamics of this coalition. That's why it is important that we learn how to think about these controversies, if we are to talk about them intelligently.


  1. Its not only what it means but what it does in the saying.

    Its the same thing Blair was effective in doing - seizing & setting the rhetorical agenda and its terms, constantly reinventing it almost from day to day, leaving the opposition and the media always trailing in its wake talking up a furore about what it could all mean. Vacuous, or specious, or vaguely accurate, it hardly matters because it conveys the perpetual sense of motion, lightness, vision, and apparent 'knowledge'. It defeats argument in advance and exploits the 24-hour news cycle against itself. Blair did it in auto-pilot. He even managed to do it in his recent appearance at the Iraq inquiry, leaving everyone again with that sense of grasping at thin air, watching the fading grin.

    Cameron's having a shot at it but he's an amateur.

  2. p.s I think Robert Peel was actually the first 'liberal conservative'.

  3. Your point emphasises another about the way Cameron is described by sections of the media. The spammy PR man, the jellyfish snake-oil salesman and first and foremost Heir to Blair.

    One of the problems I've always found with this analysis is that if he was a mere huckster - surely Cameron would do it better. Compared to Blair's effortless legerdemain - Cam-Cam is stiff as a board. Take the first speech he made before popping into Number 10 for a spot of prime ministering - it was terrible. Stilted, awkward, hardly the slick, oily show of a cultivated performer.