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The search for fairness

The search for fairness


Inequality – and its ability to destabilise the global order – has become one of the defining issues of our time. But while plenty of people are talking about it, there are far fewer actually proposing solutions


At the beginning of The Broken Ladder, Keith Payne’s fascinating book about how inequality affects the way we think and feel, how we live and die, he cites a revealing piece of research on how often people lose their temper on planes. The study analyses incidents of air rage. And it starts off by looking at planes that have a first class cabin and those that don’t. The researchers – Katherine DeCelles and Michael Norton – found that the odds of an air rage incident were four times more likely on a plane where there was a first class cabin as well as economy seating; and then, looking at the boarding process, they found that planes with first class cabins that board at the front, rather than the middle – i.e. those planes that invite people to walk to the coach cabin by going past the first class passengers with their large screens and wide, bed-sized seats – well, on those planes, there were double the chance of a passenger in coach losing their temper. 

This weekend marks the publishing of the Sunday Times’ Rich List – and it’s become something of a ritual. But what started out as a ticklish curiosity has become the foghorn of a crisis. The headlines this year make the point: this pandemic year has been a bonanza for the wealthy; there were more billionaires created in the past year than in any of the past 33 years that the paper has been tracking Britain’s richest people. And their total wealth went up by nearly a quarter; the gender balance is a story of its own, as there are only ten women who have made a fortune of their own in the top 250; and that’s you get into the details of how the richest made their money, the proportion that the wealthy give or that they pay in tax, and all against the backdrop of this year’s spike in unemployment, the erosion of savings for the poorest and the unequal burden of sickness and grief across the country. 

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk for a moment about the search for fairness. Inequality – more arguably than climate change or social justice – threatens the credibility of what, for want of a better word, you’d call “the system” – AKA globalisation, the free market society, liberal values, capitalism. And the question for us is whether we, as journalists, can not just analyse the problem of inequality, but find ways to greater fairness. 

This is not just a theoretical question, but a practical one. At Tortoise we’re planning our series of ThinkIns for June – and, in fact, the next series of podcasts, the ThinkIns with James Harding. As with the last series with the Battle for Truth, the inequality problem seems like it’s everywhere: top rates of pay, tax avoidance and evasion, the K-shaped recovery, crazy bitcoin prices, government lobbying, cosy contracts and self-dealing. 

And so in response, what we’re seeing is the search for fairness dividing and confusing our journalism, but also creating tensions not just between our political parties but within them. 

In the UK, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government trumpets its commitment to delivering on “the People’s Priorities”; and yet more likely, it knows that it’s haunted by the prospect of a coming economic boom will deliver only rich people’s priorities. And, as a result, what we’re seeing is the Tories splitting – splitting over economic policy between on the one hand chancellor Rishi Sunak’s free marketeers and prime minister Boris Johnson’s big government interventionists.

Meanwhile the Left, well, it isn’t even lucky enough to have defined its dividing lines yet. Jeremy Corbyn’s previous Labour team tested to destruction the promise of redistribution and nationalisation and it totted up the worst general election results for the Labour Party in living memory. But, as yet, Keir Starmer and his relatively new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have yet to offer a plan for prosperity from the Left, and so the party is torn between old-school ideologues and opportunistic skirmishers.

Like many people of my age, for whom adulthood was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of liberalism, the fairness problem has left me unmoored. Every day, inequality stalks the news. And in two distinct ways: 

  • there’s the selfish elite – i.e. the super-rich and self-dealing 
  • and then there’s the meritocracy myth – the problem of social immobility and the obstacles to opportunity. 

In other words, I find myself unclear what to think. The perfect starting point, you might say, for a ThinkIn. And I suppose I should take comfort from the fact I’m not the only one. As you may know if you joined Mark Carney for the ThinkIn we held a month or so ago, his book on values is a study of how market values became divorced from human values – and he is good on the diagnosis, less so on the prescription. Reading The Broken Ladder and looking over the Sunday Times Rich List, it feels that this – the search for fairness is a good project for the summer of 2021: a series of ThinkIns. And as ever, all thoughts are most welcome.