Simon Griffiths: How much equality do we need for people to make free choices?

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The Independent Online

We are now said to be living in a post-ideological age in British politics. This is not the case. It is certainly true that there is less ideological division than existed in the early 1980s, when the Labour Party moved radically to the left and the Conservatives to the right. However, there is still considerable tension, not just between the parties but also within them – as their responses to the recession has shown.

While many on the left push to keep public spending high, give the economy a much-needed boost and maintain public services (themselves a form of redistribution), the right worries about the effects of debt on the market and the reputation of UK plc necessary for recovery.

There are many who argue that ideas have a limited role in shaping public policy. And they are right, to the extent that other factors matter: the influence of professional and producer interests; the perceived constraints imposed on politicians by the nature of the economy and society; the international context; and of course electoral necessity. However, political actors also shape public policy and it is simplistic to see politicians as overly constrained by external events.

Nowhere is the importance of ideas clearer than in changing responses to "social justice" – an idea traditionally central to social democracy. A generation ago, those close to Thatcher rejected the idea as a "myth", the pursuit of which would create a zero-sum scrap for resources between interest groups.

The modernised Conservatives are much more interested in the idea. But what do they mean by the term? David Willetts, one of the Conservatives' leading contemporary thinkers, praises the recent investment in "abilities and capacities", and in doing so rejects the argument of the Thatcherite New Right that freedom and the ability to do something are categorically different.

This just raises new questions: how much and what sort of equality is needed for people to be able to make free choices? What other institutions are important for a free society? As we look for a route out of recession, political ideas and thinking matter – next time you hear someone claim otherwise, challenge them.

Taken from a talk Simon Griffiths gave at the British Academy last night. He is co-editor of 'British Party Politics and Ideology after New Labour' with Kevin Hickson