We are all equal ... in fooling ourselves that we believe in equality

The ruling hypocrisy

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One of the ways any society is judged and remembered is how it deals with its ruling hypocrisy. We think of Victorian repression and prostitution; or of the co-existence of Enlightenment rhetoric and slavery in 19th-century America; or the fear and brutalisation brought by Marxist governments preaching freedom. All societies have some key hypocrisies. Generally they become taboo subjects, beyond polite discussion. And ours?

Our hypocrisy is gentler, as befits gentler times, but it is no less interesting. It is equality. If there is one unchallengeable common British belief, it is in one-person, one-vote democracy. Behind that lies a strong public assumption that people are equal, not simply before the law, but in value. We have not only a democracy, but a ferociously democratic culture. In that, we have become like America.

Where did this come from? From Christianity, with its ``equal before God'', and from the Enlightenment, and from the efforts of successive waves of liberal, feminist and socialist reformers asking questions about great inequalities. But perhaps the key event in spreading ``we are all of equal value'' was the Holocaust: for a few short, terrible years, the whole world looked down into the pit of what happens when avowedly unequalist policies are enforced. And most of the world flinched back.

So racism became steadily less popular. The post-war victors identified themselves as democracies, first and foremost, and developed mass cultures based on the ``little guy'' as hero. Traditional class structures, from the American Deep South to the Home Counties, began to crumble. Homophobia crept slowly after racism into the closet. Chat-show sermonising rammed home the unchallengeable lesson: we-are- all-of-equal-value. To deny it is like proclaiming your atheism in medieval Spain.

And yet, clearly, we don't really believe it. We use salary and capital to value people and we value them at staggeringly different levels. Everywhere, it seems, the gap between the starry tops and the rest is growing.

Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which produced a report on inequality during the summer, pointed out that 10 per cent of the population now has as much income as the poorer 50 per cent of households. ``The increase in inequality is probably the biggest social change that we have experienced in the past 20 years,'' he said. And, Johnson added, it is here to stay.

A Labour Party which was once firmly egalitarian in its creed rules a Britain that is profoundly unequal and growing more so - and Labour neither can nor wants to do anything about it.

Ministers defend the big fees paid to the top people who advise the Government on everything from the millennium to poverty. They explain just why top doctors command really big salaries. (Answer: many of their clever friends are richer still.) They get into a mess about their own salaries. But the one-time would-be redistributors of wealth have become advocates for inequality.

And it is hard to imagine them being anything else, frankly, because inequality has become so popular. For many soccer fans, the fat fee paid to the latest Italian transfer recruit is a source of immense local pride. The enormous sums earned by Noel Edmonds or Esther Rantzen haven't dented their popularity. Hardly anyone mourning Diana seemed bothered by the raising up of a very rich and aristocratic woman. We know as she knew that money can't buy you love.

In a particularly piquant recent example, the BBC's John Birt let it be known this week that he was worried by the Hollywood fees being demanded by some big-name television stars. He would resist ``massive cost inflation of talent as a matter of public policy''.

A piquancy derived from the fact that so many of the top earners are top earners because of their ability to act out our ``little guy'', egalitarian fantasies. David Jason is an obvious example. Peter Sissons, with his friendly, slightly battered countenance, feels like a reliable, ordinary bloke; which is why the BBC paid pounds 600,000 to win him over from ITN.

Inevitably, the ironies are even more garish in American television, where Roseanne Barr, playing herself as working-class slob-heroine, is said to earn up to pounds 10m a year. Jennifer Aniston, who plays your girl- next-door flatmate in Friends, thinks her salary is "insane". So a popular culture that idealises ordinariness produces extraordinary fortunes for those who mimic ordinariness.

Now, the market explanation for this is obvious and well understood. But isn't it at least odd that a society committed to political and legal equality and an almost unchallenged belief in the equal moral value of human lives is also so vigorously and enthusiastically unequal in valuing and rewarding the people who live those lives?

For the remaining social democrats, such as Roy Hattersley, this is the sadness and shame at the heart of Tony Blair's bright and shiny new Britain. Yet social democracy, as a political project, seems dead. There are too many haves or might-haves, with too little interest in the haven'ts. Are we condemned to be a generation of social hypocrites, prattling post-war pieties and doing the opposite?

One answer is perhaps to look again at hypocrisy itself. In most cases the ruling social hypocrisy had a purpose. It wasn't an embarrassing afterthought.

The Victorians may have been buttoned-up and repressive. But the self- discipline and greater conformism was essential to one of the world's first mass middle-class societies, which had set itself so many hard administrative and industrial tasks. Education, the economic cohesion of strong families and saving were vital to the Victorians' new society. It couldn't afford the more riotous and less inhibited mores of the 18th century. So - hypocrisy? Yes, but necessary.

Similarly, America, even in the slave era, needed the political myth of a society of free equals, as it sucked in Western immigrants and thrust them West to survive or die. And Marxist regimes would have crumbled immediately without the propagandistic promise of a better tomorrow, and history on your side.

In our case, with a boom market in particular skills and professions, and a growing underclass, the assertions that ``this is a democracy, after all'' and ``we are worth the same'' seem increasingly threadbare. We don't believe in equality after all.

But perhaps it is important that we still believe we believe in equality. In the end, ours is a poignant and optimistic hypocrisy, rather than a malign one. It is a constant and humane protest at the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity which our economic system produces, along with general rising living standards. Without that residual human protest, our remaining political protections would fall away. Our necessary optimism - the optimism that provides our energy as a country - would fail.

But a Martian, or a Victorian, would call us hypocrites, even so.

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