Challenged about what emerging Tory thinking amounted to, Willetts had a number of interesting things to say. His suggested that the most important changes in Conservative thinking were on recognising how much inequality matters; on realising that clever market-based schemes by which citizens would pay for core aspects of major public services like health and education were futile, with a supply-side approach instead; and on no longer thinking that the point of a future Conservative government was to repeal as much as possible of whatever New Labour had done.
I was interested in his comments on inequality. This is what he had to say.
The evidence has become stronger and stronger that inequality matters. That gradual accretion of the data shows that it is where you are relative to other people which matters enormously. I think that is an issue that my party had not registered, and that has now come home.
This would be good news, if true. But I think Willetts made be rather optimistic about that. It may well be a debate that the Conservatives have not yet had internally. Greg Clark began a debate a couple of years about whether the Conservatives should be influenced more by Polly Toynbee on inequality than Margaret Thatcher. At the time, many in the party seemed pretty clear about what being a Conservative meant on that one. (And we have heard much less about this since last Autumn).
This is a timely moment to return to that debate. David Willetts' comments coincide neatly with the publication of The Spirit Level, one of the most important books of the year, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The Guardian did a good job in a double-page centre-spread yesterday (PDF file) in communicating the evidence-based argument about why inequality matters.
The ESRC book, studiously steering clear of party politics to make the evidence-based argument, contains much evidence on the issues of social policy, poverty and health, that challenges the argument that 'the state has failed'. If we are interested in challenging entrenched, intergenerational disadvantage, the current policy agenda needs to be deepened, not scrapped for something new. As Ed Miliband commented at the launch, those children who would have been first to benefit from SureStart in 1999 will be enter adulthood in 2018.
Among the important political consequences of the Wilkinson/Pickett book is that is offers a pretty foundational challenge to the emerging centre-right thinking on social justice and poverty. Iain Duncan Smith has put an enormous amount of effort into these issues at the Centre for Social Justice, doing much detailed work on specific social issues. But the weakness of the overall analysis is that there is a very strong emphasis on issues of family breakdown, social problems like alcohol and drug abuse, and debt as causes of poverty. There is very little awareness of poverty and inequality as significant contributory factors to issues of debt and family breakdown.
This is a traditional left-right debate. To some extent, the constructive answer is that both sides need to ensure an account of both structural and behavioural factors, and the causal links between them in both directions. I have argued that before. Yet the Wilkinson evidence is impressive and robust in testing the hypotheses and correlations. The core message: It is the inequality, stupid.
This has long been understood in health, through the work of Michael Marmot and Wilkinson himself. Of course, behaviour matters. But there is now enormous weight of robust international evidence on how the "causes of the causes" relate to the social determinants of health, while the health gradients across society demonstrate how much inequality matters. Wilkinson's evidence: it should help to have America's wealth, and yet less affluent Japan has better overall health outcomes at all levels of society.
This is a difficult political message for some on the right. The idea of 'relative poverty' is thought to be a Fabian or Marxist twisting of the meaning of words. There is a suspicion of inequality as being simply a abstract, statistical relation - why should it matter how well the top does to those at the bottom?
That argument was powerfully put by Margaret Thatcher. I am sceptical of the view sometimes put that the enormous growth in inequality was an unforeseen and unintended by-product of the Thatcher years. That was not what was argued at the time. Thatcher made an explicit, public argument for greater inequality before entering office.
what are the lessons then that we've learned from the last thirty years? First, that the pursuit of equality itself is a mirage ... I believe you have a saying in the Middle West: "Don't cut down the tall poppies. Let them rather grow tall." I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so.
Progressive Conservatism has shied away from any detailed assessment of how the 1980s contributed to inequality, stalled social mobility or the social problems they now focus on. It is not surprising to find David Willetts on the side of argument which can be supported by the evidence. What remains in question is how deep the conversion he identifies really goes in the party. Has the Conservative mainstream shifted to believing that poverty must be understood in relative terms - and that greater equality is an important social goal. Or not?