A year ago, soon after launching the Fairness Foundation, we asked the public what they thought of our definition of fairness (The Fair Necessities).
The responses showed strong support for our vision of a fair society. They also demonstrated that most Britons don’t want equal outcomes for everyone. But even fewer people want a small state that leaves everything to the market. Most people want everyone to have equal opportunities, and recognise that our society and economy doesn’t provide this. Hence the instinctive appeal of levelling up.
Our polling showed that more than twice as many Conservative voters would vote for a political party whose core aim is to reduce inequality to give everyone the same opportunities as would vote for a party whose aim is to minimise state intervention in the economy.
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted in 2021 on the basis of research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, Britons are divided about whether hard work or factors outside people’s control have more influence on life chances, splitting into three similarly sized groups: “individualists”, “structuralists” and those in the middle. However, 80 per cent of Britons are concerned about inequality. Even individualists recognise that too much inequality makes equal opportunity impossible. And most people recognise that equal opportunities aren’t just about removing obvious barriers, such as racial or gender discrimination, but also require action to tackle barriers put up by socio-economic inequalities. As the US president Lyndon Johnson said in 1965: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
Perhaps this explains why our recent polling on attitudes to wealth and wealth inequality, published just before The Sunday Times Rich List, has found that seven in ten Britons (including 61 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters) are concerned about a society in which some have wealth of over £10 million while others live in poverty, and three in four (including 72 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters) are concerned that people with net wealth of £10 million or more have too much influence on politics.
Concerns about the nature and consequences of wealth inequality translate into support across the political spectrum for action on taxing the wealthy: eight in ten people (including 79 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters) are concerned that the wealthy don’t contribute their fair share of taxes, and almost seven in ten (including 64 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters) think the government should do more to tax high-net-worth individuals (people with net wealth of £10 million or more).
We also found that attitudes to people with wealth are strongly shaped by opinions on whether that wealth is deserved. Asked to compare wealth acquired in seven different ways, people are much more positive about wealth earned by entrepreneurs and landlords than about wealth that is inherited, or earned by city traders and even footballers. Maybe we should rethink what we mean by fair play, even for the beautiful game.
Will Snell is chief executive of the Fairness Foundation