HARMANISM; It's Not the Middle Classes but Social Engineering Zealots like Ms Harman Who Are to Blame for Britain's Inequality Gap

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Byline: by Max Hastings

AFTER 62 years of the welfare state and 13 of New Labour, Britain is becoming a less equal society. The Government's National Equality Panel reported this week that the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970.

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman immediately took to Radio 4 to assert that 'persistent inequality of social class perpetuates disadvantage'. The Government proposes to attack this by placing a new legal burden upon public bodies 'to address socio-economic equality'.

It is fascinating to speculate about her meaning. Will travellers be represented on the board of Railtrack? Should sink estate dwellers have a statutory voice on the BBC Trust? Ms Harman is a boundlessly foolish woman, so it would be rash to rule out any extravagance.

Class, not patriotism, is the last resort of political scoundrels. Labour, on the ropes electorally, is playing the card for all it believes it to be worth. Between now and polling day, we shall hear much more about alleged social discrimination, the shocking advantages the rich somehow steal from the poor.

Underclass The tragedy is that Harman and her kind are pursuing cheap tactical advantage amid one of the horror stories of our time.

The National Equality Panel is a silly name for a meretricious quango.

We do not need its report to show that the bottom section of British society, the underclass, lead miserable lives from which their children have pathetically little chance of escape.

It is heartbreaking to see mid-teen mothers in supermarkets, clusters of idle kids on city street corners, knowing they are probably doomed to join Britain's one-in-six workless households and the dependency culture.

But Ms Harman's resentment focuses upon the haves; the people who earn large incomes, rear their children in comfort and, above all, educate them privately.

Harmanism has launched Labour stalwart Dame Suzi Leather, chairman of the Charities Commission, on her war against independent schools.

Harmanism is reflected in a thousand Government initiatives to fight alleged unfair disadvantage -- one of them revealed this week by the Norfolk Jobcentre, which rejected an advertisement specifying that applicants should be 'reliable' workers.

This, asserted the Jobcentre, discriminated against unreliable workers. The recruitment agency placing the ad had to fight to be allowed to request an English speaker, lest this disadvantage non-English speakers. Harmanism seeks to attack every cause of unemployability save the most obvious: the catastrophic failure of the state education system.

Professor John Hills, a member of the National Equality Panel, said yesterday: 'The challenge our report puts down to all political parties is: how do you create a level playing field when there are such large differences between the resources that different people have available to them?' Just so. But a host of social surveys show that 40 years ago more of the children of the poor escaped from their environment, through the grammar school system and a far more rigorous teaching and exam culture, than do their successors today.

Shirley Williams and Anthony Crosland, education ministers under Harold Wilson and Harriet Harman's spiritual forebears, deliberately destroyed the grammar schools. It has taken half a century for the damage inflicted on social mobility by their 'level playing-field' policies to be fully understood.

A new pamphlet for the Civitas think-tank by former university teacher David Conway analyses the decline in Britain of 'liberal education'. The Victorians proudly called it 'liberal' because its purpose, through subjectbased teaching, was to liberate children from ignorance.

They promoted the classics, science and literature not merely to cram facts but to broaden horizons, teach children to think and to reach conclusions on the basis of evidence. …