The theme of ‘fairness’ is running like a thread through political speeches this autumn. Variants on ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ featured large in deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s speech to his party’s conference. Ever the competitive type, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, addressing Labour this week, used the words twice as often as Clegg. No doubt Conservative ministers will also invoke fairness in Birmingham next week.
As ever, the use of a word across the political spectrum tells us much of what we need to know about the zeitgeist. But we should ask ourselves why a declared commitment to ‘fairness’ is so seldom equated with the linked commitment to ‘justice’.
As we reported earlier this week, economics Nobel Joseph Stiglitz, speaking at the International Bar Association conference in Dublin, is unusual in linking the two more strongly. In desperate economic times, the professor reminds us, access to justice is central to people’s hopes of fair treatment.
On the evidence of this party conference season, that is a well-delivered line to which the political classes are uniformly deaf. The coalition government rejected all proposals to deliver savings to legal aid while preserving access to justice. And while Labour parliamentarians seemed ready to die in a ditch for legal aid as LASPO went through the Commons and the Lords, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has now confirmed that those cuts will stay.
In a long speech, Labour leader Ed Miliband did not mention justice. Yet for many justice is the technology by which fairness is delivered. Oddly, politicians who are willing to concede that are vanishingly rare.