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Westminster watch

Simon Barrow

While it's always been true that you cannot legislate for virtue, a goodly tweak to the civil system backed up by a bit of statutory muscle can  make it clear that certain kinds of behaviour are no longer appropraite. That is the logic behind the growing body of legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination on grounds of gender, race, disability, age and (rather more controversially, as far as some religious persons and institutions are concerned) sexual orientation.

The 'equalities culture', as it is sometimes disparagingly referred to, is a way of dealing with an increasingly mixed society in which economic muscle and multiple differences bring people into competition. That we should be able to expect equal treatment, irrespective of whether we like or approve of each other, is a baseline of modern pluralism.

Some see this as the propagation of 'a new secular religion', one preserved from proper scrutiny. The naysayers include Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Their alternative is a return to roots - including an amorphous imaginary called 'the Judaeo-Christian tradition'. This may not claim everyone's active assent, they admit, but at least it preserves us from the 'political correctness' of a new liberal plutocracy.

Others strongly disagree with this characterisation. They say that modern pluralism, and the tolerance it enshrines, is not a new ideology competing for space with religious or other beliefs, but merely a framework for achieving a level playing field, where no one set of interests can automatically claim dominance over another.

The same kind of argument has developed in politics. Defenders of a majoritarian Westminster system and first-past-the-post voting concede that these can produce outcomes that look deeply unfair - such as the fact that it requires four times as many votes to elect a representative from the third party than one from the 'big two'. But they say that is a price worth paying for stability and clear choices.

The pluralists, by contrast, believe that all votes should count and that public institutions should reflect and learn to deal with the actual outcomes (sometimes consonant, sometimes contradictory) that arise from the 'will of the people' expressed on equal terms and with proportional effect. Sure, that may not always be decisive or convenient, but life is about finding a way of handling our differences rather than obliterating them, or putting one group at a permanent advantage.

Little of this was necessarily evident when politicians traded horses following the closest election result in years. Nor does it necessarily help when eyes start to glaze over about PR and constitutional change. But the choice remains. Do we want a negotiated public square, or one that orders us through dominant presets - and if so, which ones?