Not a Christmas read. To be read after Christmas

Not a Christmas read. To be read after Christmas 
by David Donnison, Scottish Review



‘Fighting Poverty, Inequality and Injustice’ by Alan Walker, Adrian Sinfield and Carol Walker (eds), Bristol Policy Press
To say that this is a book on social problems and policies by 16 authors – professors every one of them – will provoke many readers to switch to another column before I get to the end of this sentence. But while I would not choose it for their Christmas stockings I do think many of them will find the book worth looking at when the festivities are over.
The authors are commemorating their friend and colleague, Peter Townsend, and carrying forward the tradition he represented. That tradition – which goes back to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Richard Tawney, William Beveridge and Richard Titmuss – combines scholarship, teaching and political engagement. Although they differed in many ways, all these people offered their fellow citizens a humane, egalitarian, carefully reasoned and hopeful vision of their country’s future. It is an honourable tradition, to which more conservative writers have also made a contribution; a specially British tradition too.


This book deals in a scholarly but easily read way with many of the questions we are now debating: how and why to reverse the growing inequalities in income and health that disgrace our society; child poverty and how to reduce it; how to care for our growing numbers of elderly and disabled people; whether social benefits should be means-tested or provided on equal terms for whole categories of people; third-world poverty and the possibility of building a ‘global welfare state’; and so on.


Each of us will find different chapters particularly interesting. I was struck by Danny Dorling’s analysis of our massively growing inequalities and his argument that these arise from the growing power of very rich people who operate on a global scale at a level above that of traditional ruling classes – and know exactly what they want. London stands at the apex of this worldwide class: the ‘supernova class’ Dorling calls them – reminding us darkly that supernovas are on a one-way road to destruction.


I was struck too by Conor Gearty, a top-class human rights lawyer, who, in a delightfully written chapter, argues that we have made a great mistake in handing over this field of work to his profession. That threatens to turn the subject into a narrow, specialist technology. The essential questions to be addressed are not legal but political; and the most important action required to advance human rights is also usually not legal but political. We are all involved.


So how about the professors? Academics are not morally or intellectually superior to anyone else. It’s not only priests who abuse the young people they are supposed to care for.


You may feel that in these turbulent times you have more urgent things to attend to than reading this kind of stuff. So let me explain why this kind of stuff is specially important in these times.


All the authorities to which we used to turn for guidance when thinking about the future of our nation – our politicians, our church leaders, the press, the police, the mandarins of the civil service – all have in recent years been discredited. There are of course many good people still to be found in each of these professions. But the institutions for which they speak are no longer trusted. They have to convince us, case by case, of their right to a serious hearing. (When told in recent days by the press that politicians are considering military action against Iran because intelligence services report that the country is close to building nuclear weapons, would any intelligent reader have relied unquestioningly on any of these authorities – the press, the politicians, the military, the intelligence services…?) No harm in that. We have had to do a lot of growing-up in recent years.


So how about the professors? Academics are not morally or intellectually superior to anyone else. It’s not only priests who abuse the young people they are supposed to care for. It’s not only journalists who distort the truth to fit their political agendas. It’s not only officials who tailor their reports to please those who have power to promote or dismiss them.


But the academics are expected to clarify their moral and political preferences – not just to assert them as if they were proven science. They have to present hard evidence and analysis to support their arguments – not just pontificate about them. They have to publish their work in journals where it can be torn apart by other very smart people – not just send a thinktank’s private briefing to cabinet ministers. And their jobs – for the more senior ones at least – are sufficiently secure to give them the courage of their convictions. Good academics, like those who wrote this book, do all these things. They also present their work in words that any literate person can understand.


That’s a precious resource for any society in these baffling times. 


David Donnison is an emeritus professor and honorary senior research fellow in the department of urban studies at the University of Glasgow