David Cameron's misappropriation of the word "privilege"

The Prime Minister says he wants to spread privilege - the IEA's Philip Booth really hopes that isn't what he meant.

Given the constraints of political speech-making, David Cameron's effort earlier this week was reasonable. There was the misunderstanding of international trade that one always gets from politicians when he said that developed countries were in a global race and faced a sink or swim situation. This is a common misconception. But, trade theory is tough, even for those who have the best education money can buy, so this line of reasoning is understandable. Of course, when new nations develop there are more opportunities for specialisation and trade, not fewer. The developing countries get richer and, although there may be some particular industries that suffer problems as a result of changing trading patterns, we are not in a race in some kind of zero sum game. The growth of China and India change the big picture relatively little. With good policy, our economy might grow at two to three per cent per year and with bad policy it might grow at zero to two per cent per year. Our concern should be to have good policy at home - but not because we are in some kind of economic race towards a fixed prize.

David Cameron's second error though, was rather surprising coming from somebody with a degree in PPE from Oxford. One should never be too harsh on politicians in front of a camera. It is easy to use the wrong words or for the words to come out in the wrong order. However, this was a carefully scripted speech written by professionals.

After pointing to his own educational background, Cameron said that he wanted to "spread privilege". I really hope not.

Privilege involves law that benefits the few (though, to interpret the principle more widely, the few could even be the majority). In the Soviet Union, travelling abroad was a privilege. In this country, pension contributions are "tax privileged". Doctors are privileged by laws restricting entry. An expensive education is definitely not a privilege - it is a freedom. It is a freedom that few can exercise but this does not make it a privilege.

What we definitely do not want to do is "spread privilege". Spreading privilege really means creating lots more situations where there are laws in existence for the benefit of the few. However, I am sure that is not what David Cameron intended to argue for; his intention, I am sure, was to say "widen privileges" so that existing privileges are available to more people.

But, even this is not what we should aspire to. The equivalent in the Soviet Union would be to pass a law letting some more people travel. What David Cameron really means is that he wants to "widen opportunity" or, better still, "restrain freedom less". The corporatist interpretation of his aspiration would be that he wants to ensure that education is better for everybody. The liberal (in the proper sense of the word) interpretation is that he wants to give many, many more families the freedom to choose their children's education.

Does any of this matter? Yes, it does. The meanings of words evolve, but those who believe in freedom are used to having words hijacked because it enables the enemies of freedom to make their case in an underhand way. This is why I had to put "in the proper sense of the word" in brackets after using the word "liberal". The word privilege is already used by the left in the education debate in a way that is very damaging. They argue that "higher education should be a right and not a privilege". In fact, this is using the word in the same way as David Cameron uses the word - and this is disastrous in the debate. Under new funding arrangements higher education will become a "freedom". Under old funding arrangements it was a "privilege" because laws had to be passed and regulations made that limited higher education to the few as a result of fiscal constraints (and that higher education was financed by the many for the benefit of the few). In fact, those on the liberal side of the debate are demanding that higher education should be "a freedom and not a privilege". Those on the left are actually arguing that higher education should be "a privilege and neither a freedom nor a right". The last slogan does not trip off the tongue quite as well and I am not sure the left would get much traction from using it - hence their desire to redefine words. It is the left that believe in privilege because, if access to goods and services is free, then that access has to be restricted by law creating a privileged few.

Privilege is inimical to a free society. Indeed, it is the fight against privilege that should define everything that Conservative and Liberal parties should stand for. It was a fight that began with Magna Carta. Please, let us not have a policy of spreading privilege. And please, let us also not help the left in redefining the language of freedom.

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs

A couple of privileged French fops. Image: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

 

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.