Equal Wales: Why Equal Rights?

(Title Image: silamesa.org)

This month’s update to State of Wales is (almost) entirely dedicated to equalities.

Some of you will probably be pleased about that as it’s not something I cover often – the idea of creating a “more equal” Wales being the main reason you may support independence. Others will consider this work a waste of time or pandering to so-called SJWs.

If I end up pissing both off (or neither) as far as I’m concerned I’m on the right path. Doing this now and getting it out of the way leaves me more time to concentrate on “meatier” issues like the economy or immigration, while this series also acts as a prequel to future work.

Equal Wales: An Introduction

Ensuring all citizens have equal rights under the law is amongst the most important foundation stones of a nation’s constitution and philosophical outlook.

It helps determine exactly what sort of country we want Wales to be. So this series, as said, forms part of the foundations to what will eventually be a series of posts on a Welsh Constitution & Bill of Rights.

I selected nine equalities issues facing modern Wales to focus on (which pretty much covers all the bases):

Each post gives you an outline of what each issue means to those affected, how bad the problem is, where problems still exist, where things are improving as well as a short list of what policy options could be available to make things better for the affected group(s).

The biggest category I haven’t included this time is faith/religion – but I intend to look at that separately in July.

The Definition of Equality

Next, it’s time to decide what we’re all talking about when we mean “equality”.

Equality isn’t as easy to define, and isn’t necessarily the cure for all social ills, as many equalities and identity politics campaigners would like to think it is.

Broadly-speaking, it means everyone being treated the same in the eyes of the law and given the same opportunities while avoiding being penalised for their distinguishing or protected characteristics (a trait – physical, social or cultural – that marks them as a minority group), their social background or their wealth.

Those with more socialist or leftist viewpoints may prioritise economic equality above all else – meaning by virtue of the state holding everything, we achieve equality as we all have equal ownership of the means of production.

A classical liberal or compassionate conservative may favour equal and civil rights but be against economic and wealth equality because of their belief in the free market as the best economic system. Some on the right (particularly the far-right) may not acknowledge equalities at all and believe in “survival of the fittest/strongest” (Social Darwinism).

After all that, why is equality important?

  • Giving everyone equal opportunities to succeed makes sense economically as it allows the entire population to contribute and make full use of their talents.
  • It ensures the bodies and organisations that make decisions are truly representative of the population as a whole.
  • Equal rights prevents the marginalisation of minority groups/those with minority characteristics which may have one particular ideology, viewpoint, culture, laws or set of standards forced upon them in a disproportionate manner by a majority.
  • It improves quality of life by ensuring everyone feels equally valued, particularly if they need additional support to overcome barriers; equality “makes life more livable”.

The Philosophical Problems of Equality

Aside from specific policies (which I’ll look in more detail in other posts) that can be introduced to create an equal society, there are a number of philosophical barriers to achieving equality that have to be worked around.

Learned behaviour – It’s a cliche, but “nobody’s born racist or sexist etc.; they learn it”. Research suggests gender stereotyping is picked up naturally as early as 2 years old, while it’s an evolutionary instinct to be scared of something you don’t understand or consider a threat – for example, seeing the ethnic make-up of a neighbourhood change rapidly over the space of a decade or coming across a person with a serious facial disfigurement.

Equality vs Equity Pursuing equality doesn’t mean everyone ends up on an equal footing (and isn’t always desirable) – there are still circumstances where a person’s protected characteristics or minority status will work against them even if you guarantee equal opportunities for all. Someone with a serious learning disability – Down’s Syndrome for argument’s sake – will likely always be barred from studying medicine. Likewise, if fitness standards for the military or emergency services were exactly the same for men and women it’s likely fewer women would pass on average; you would end up, objectively, with a public service workforce more able to cope with the physical demands of the role but less representative (and maybe less capable on the non-physical aspects of the role).

Intersectionality/”Check your privilege” – Privilege, in a social context, means certain groups having an ingrained advantage over other groups even if they share similar distinguishing characteristics as a minority. For example, can I, realistically, as a straight white male preach about equalities issues I’ve not had first-hand experience of? Does your average middle/ upper-class white feminist preaching about glass ceilings and being passed over for six-figure salaries help working-class black women? Men can be as disadvantaged as women because of their gender or social background, while some high-profile feminists have made transphobic comments. Do these issues have to be addressed as part of a bigger picture, or one by one?

Reverse discrimination – Reverse discrimination is an inevitable side effect of pursuing policies that are designed to enforce equality and improve the representation of minority groups (“affirmative action”). From an equalities perspective, it’s trying to re-balance and compensate for in-built privileges, but it still means someone misses out based solely on their defining characteristics – for example, men will miss out when gender quotas are instituted for political candidates. White working-class boys/men are, arguably, now one of the most marginalised groups in society following decades of affirmative action policies, even if by being white and male they’ve often been seen to have an inbuilt advantage (but there’s no affirmative action scheme for social class).

Equality & Identity Politics in Welsh Politics

Although policy for equalities isn’t expressly devolved as a whole, the Welsh Government and Senedd are responsible for equalities policy within devolved areas – the one most unique to Wales, of course, being the rights of Welsh-speakers.

Following the enshrinement of the Equality Act 2010 in law, the Welsh Government introduced specific equalities duties for the public sector in Wales. There are eight key objectives covering access to information, equal opportunities at work, tackling hate crime, supporting independent living and improving the representation of minority groups in the public sector. Annual reports are published by the government and debated by AMs.

The Welsh Language Commissioner is currently responsible for issues around the Welsh language, while there are also commissioners for older people and younger people.

The Assembly Commission has consistently featured amongst Stonewall’s top employers for LGBTs (with the Welsh Government not far behind), while the Senedd has consistently had a (relatively) high proportion of women elected members and leaders, as well as taking measures to improve facilities for the disabled (particularly those with autism) and provide gender-neutral facilities.

As I’ll cover in other parts, despite the back-slapping in the Cardiff Bay bubble, there remain serious problems in the rest of Wales.

Hate crimes have increased since the Brexit vote, the Welsh language has come under sustained attack in the media, bullying of LGBTs remains a problem in Welsh schools and the gender pay gap is still with us.

What should an independent Wales’ vision for equalities be?

This bit was originally a short rant about how some of the biggest barriers to making progress in equalities are the professionally offended and the counter-reaction by the “alt-right”. I decided it was best to avoid any backdraft and stick to being positive.

So, what are some of the key principles an independent Wales could seek in terms of equality?

Self-worth and dignity for all – Nobody should have to feel disproportionately disadvantaged, inadequate or have unnecessary barriers put in place to prevent them leading a normal, happy life. This includes measures against bullying and prejudice in schools, the workplace and wider society.

Equality of opportunity and outcomes – No barriers should be put in place to prevent someone, regardless of their background, from achieving their full potential in society as a result of open and fair competition. It also means that if you’re good enough, you should be treated the same as peers at a similar level regardless of your defining characteristics (i.e. equal pay for equal work).

Welsh institutions should reflect our society as best as practically possible – Public life and public services should reflect the demographic make-up of the population as a whole to ensure fair and proportionate representation.

Protection of minorities – Law-abiding minority groups with protected characteristics should be formally protected from “tyranny of the majority” and have their rights enshrined in the Constitution and law to protect them from discrimination under the principle of equality of opportunity.

Freedom of speech (but not freedom from consequences) – Nobody has a right to go through life unoffended. Freedom of speech in an independent Wales should be sacrosanct. You can say whatever you want as long as it’s honest opinion, true, doesn’t abuse anyone, doesn’t incite violence or unconstitutional acts, nor the curbing of the due rights and freedoms of others. You should be able tell whatever jokes you want, you should even be able to have and express views that the average person would find disgusting.

That doesn’t extend to, for example, breaking the rules of a private company or online platform that you’ve signed up for which results in a ban or getting sacked, denying someone equal service because of their sexuality, disability etc. or screaming “free speech!!!” when your deliberately provocative views come under attack.

Freedom of speech protects your right to say something, not to protect you from the consequences of saying it; it can and should protect your right to be a complete arsehole, but it shouldn’t be used as a shield to stop you getting a verbal kicking in response or facing the consequences of what you’ve said or done (i.e. being no-platformed or sacked).