I love John Rawls, the great American jurist and philosopher who died in 2002. Oh do keep up. Destined for the episcopal priesthood he lost his faith in the war and devoted his life to setting out the framework of a fair society. His books are – ahem – a little dense – but a sprightly young chap at the LSE called Daniel Chandler has set his thinking out afresh. Allow me. despite it being the end of the year we can’t let our brains go to mush. At least not before Thursday afternoon.
Rawls’ original position is that society should be fair, that we should design social goods such as law, education, employment and health care as if from behind a veil of ignorance where we didn’t know how we ourselves might benefit. Further, there should be intergenerational justice and sustainability. All of this is his basic liberties principle where a fair chance for everyone should be designed into every system.
However, equality is hard to get, so we have to work on it really hard. Equal opps just give the already advantaged an easier swim to the top so we need fair opportunities with some rightly getting more help than others. This is Rawls’ difference principle which governs the distribution of income, wealth, responsibility, power and the social basis of self-respect. Inequalities in the distribution of these goods should be allowed only if they benefit the least well-off in society. That’s very different from a dried-up stream of trickle-down economics. What rising tide?
Finally, the just savings principle spends public money on environmental stewardship in place to protect the material and natural environment.
For Rawls, education teaches subjects, of course, but it’s not just about future economic value. Schools should generate and uphold the political virtues of reasonableness and mutual respect. They should teach rights and freedoms, politics, the diversity of beliefs, social skills and expectations, analytical skills to tell right from wrong, communication to help all the above, basic liberal values and attitudes, good character, the encouragement of respectful debate, critical thinking, respect and tolerance, shared identity and a liberal patriotism that everyone can believe in. A pretty good manifesto for a diverse comprehensive school, eh?
Young Chandler updates this with some priorities of his own, based on the original position. More focus on early years, the abolition of fee-paying and grammar schools, more targeted funding (like pupil premium), admissions decided by lottery and investment in teacher quality.
He’d go further. He’d enshrine freedom in a written constitution, strengthen the judiciary, nurture an inclusive British patriotic identity, introduce proportional representation, remove money from politics, use direct citizen participation methods, impose climate protection laws, make much more effort on respecting protected characteristics, treat the lowest paid with respect, develop opportunities for fulfilling work that builds communities, and mandating good modern workplace democracy. A ‘realistic utopia’ that ‘avoids despondency’. Yes!
And yet, in a moment that calls for creativity and boldness, all too often we find timidity, or worse, scepticism and cynicism – a sense that democratic politics is hopelessly corrupt, that capitalism is beyond reform. The result has been a surge of support for illiberal and authoritarian populists, creating a palpable sense of uncertainty about the future of liberal democracy itself.
Is it easier to be upbeat or downbeat at the end of the year? It hasn’t been an easy one, perhaps the hardest I’ve known, for one reason or another. I’ve often (2014 and 2017, to be precise) signed off the year with this lovely bit of Charles Causley’s ‘School at Four O’clock’
At 4 o’clock the building enters harbour
All day it seems that we have been at sea
Now having lurched through the last of the water
We lie stone-safe beside the jumping quay.
I wrote to a coastal colleague yesterday and asked if all was proceeding swimmingly towards the end of term. He said he’d be OK if he could surf the tidal surge of the last week. I know what he means. Popular thought has everyone looking forwards to the holidays, but actually? Lots of children face real uncertainty once the inevitabilities of school are closed to them. Tired staff may be tetchy as the week telescopes. Exam results are the next engagement, and that relaxes nobody.
Inquisitiveness is a Tallis Habit so I asked the man why he liked stairs and he told me it was because he’d once been paralysed for a month in hospital. Now he just loves getting about on his legs, a private utopia. He said it kindly, but it put me in my place. So before next year begins and election posturing ossifies let’s allow our minds to range on what we really want from our leaders and think about holding them to account for a better vision, built on fairness and respect, where none is enriched at another’s expense.
I wish you calm waters, warm sunlight, a gentle breeze and everything it takes to a better world. Thank you for sticking with us, and see you in September.
(PS You’ll blessedly note no mention of the pay award. 6.5% is good, the funding poor and the spin insupportable. Of course there is more money than ever in the system: there are more children and prices are higher. The level of investment still lags behind 2010. Whether it will solve the recruitment and retention problem remains to be seen.)