Despite the appearance of consensus between the two main parties, the contest between equality and liberty has not disappeared. Instead, it has become a dispute about who owns the ground of "fraternity" and whether the state (Gordon Brown) or the individual (David Cameron) will lift its banner thereby Danny Kruger / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
St Stephen’s chapel, in the royal palace of Westminster, is a collegiate foundation. Like college chapels everywhere it has pews facing each other, rather than facing forward to the altar as in a parish church. So when St Stephen’s became the home of the House of Commons, the seating plan came naturally: friends sit together, and face their enemies across the aisle.
Today it is common to hear that the labels “left” and “right” have lost their meanings. And yet the terms stubbornly persist. All attempts to overcome them—by the practical expedient of a horseshoe-shaped parliament or by the more radical method of proportional representation—seem doomed. We are, it appears, naturally disposed to binary politics. In British politics, imagine this division as a single axis, running between two points. On the left stands equality, and on the right stands liberty. These two principles are the signatories to the social contract that has underpinned our democracy since 1688. They are simple principles to grasp, for each is the function of a single, identifiable agent: equality is the function of the state (the representative of all), and liberty is the function of the individual (one). As Locke explained, the state exists to guarantee and enlarge the space in which we each may be free, by implementing the law impartially and equally.
Over the last century or so, the state has acquired further responsibilities beyond its role as guarantor of the rule of law, from the provision of public services to the more or less direct management of the economy. These new responsibilities have pitted equality against liberty in a battle that echoed through the 20th century, and still resounds today.
But equality and liberty are not the only principles at work in our politics, or even the most important ones. There is another principle, the third slogan in the triad of the French revolution: fraternity. Where equality and liberty are political abstractions, levered into reality by statute, fraternity is real and self-generating; it has no need of the statutory imprimatur. It is the function of another agent: not of the state or of the individual, but of society itself, the messy and plural mixture of our personal associations. Fraternity does not concern the freedom of the individual (the abstract one) or the equality of the people (the abstract all) but the quality of relationships among the communities we inhabit: the real…