I’ve just picked up Brian Barry’s new book, Why Social Justice Matters, and despite having very high expectations based on the man’s track record, I’m not in the least disappointed so far. Barry’s work always combines extraordinary clarity and patience in argument with enviable command of the relevant chunks of social science. ‘Why Social Justice Matters’ is no exception – the chapters on the effects of growing inequality in the US and the UK on the health and education of the worst-off are fantastically useful distillations of what I presume are massive literatures. I shall hope to blog about some of Barry’s ideas about responsibility when I’ve mulled them over properly.
One of Barry’s minor themes is the shameful abandonment of social democratic ideas by New Labour, and the book drips with contempt for the vacuity and amorality of Mr Blair’s political philosophy, if that’s the word we want.
Well, given the cabinet’s division over Mr Tony’s latest cunning wheezes for our education system, it’s apposite to pick out a quote Barry finds in the late Robin Cook’s memoirs which tells you everything you need to know about the motivations of the man by whom we’re currently led:
For an ambitious middle-class parent, such as Tony Blair, what used to be thought of as good jobs are no longer good enough. Asked by a journalist why he did not send his sons to a state school, he said: ‘Look at Harold Wilson’s children’. ‘The journalist demurred and said that one son had become a headmaster and the other a professor at the Open University. To which Tony responded, startlingly, “Well I certainly hope my children do better than that”.’ To me what is surprising is that Robin Cook (in whose diaries the anecdote occurs) found the remark startling, given that Blair has both expressed and acted on the maxim that no mere ‘ideology’ (equal opportunity, perhaps) should stand in the way of his ‘doing the best’ for his children.
Yep, that Bremner, Bird and Fortune dinner party where the upper-middle class couple bemoan the fact that their children have ended up as nurses and teachers, rather than ‘making a real difference’ as, say, asset strippers, was one that Tone may have been at, in spirit at least.