Some ideas for reversing Britain

Some ideas for reversing Britain’s gross inequality
David Donnison, Scottish Review


Each generation has its never-to-be forgotten memories that mark its people’s lives. I cannot recall where I was when I heard of John Kennedy’s assassination, but I shall always remember the moment when I heard the results of the 1945 election.

I was on the bridge of a cruiser steaming through a pitch-black night across the Indian Ocean. At 1am the unexpected news was whispered to us from the radio cabin at the back of the bridge. By dawn it was all round the ship. There was alarm among some officers in the wardroom; triumph on the lower decks.

Ten days later we were in Portsmouth, loading up the ship to head back to the war against Japan, when all hands were given 48 hours leave – our first for many long months. A couple of hours later I was standing in the corridor of a train packed with soldiers and sailors bound for London, and stuck at Reading station.

Two men in bowler hats came hurrying across the platform, clutching briefcases and hoping to get aboard. One look into our packed corridor made it clear there was no hope here. ‘Let’s try a first class carriage’ said one of them to his colleague. The sailor beside me leaned out of the window and shouted ‘First class! First class! There’ll be no more bloody classes when this war is over!’ – his voice echoing through the cavernous station. You could feel the unspoken but passionate support he was getting all along the train. A pre-revolutionary moment.

These men had not read Marx or the Communist Manifesto. But they understood equality, comradeship, security and respect – the things they and their parents had so often been denied through two world wars and a depression that had inflicted poverty, suffering and fear on so many of them.

Through the next quarter century, with the help of full employment and a slowly growing welfare state, Britain made stumbling progress towards fulfilling their hopes. By 1970 the country was as equal as it had ever been. But since then we have seen a massive reversal of those trends. Britain is now the most unequal country in the western world apart from the United States.

Although surveys show that our people now have less compassion for fellow citizens who are down on their luck than the previous generation had, there are still many of us who share the hopes of the men who stood alongside me in that train. Many, I guess, are readers of the Scottish Review. What can any of us do in these bleak times to rebuild the radical, egalitarian tradition that has never been altogether driven out of our culture?

First, some broad, strategic thoughts. Do not believe those who tell us that current trends towards increasingly gross inequality are irresistible – a product of the global economic weather. There are other advanced economies – mostly doing better than our own – which have not gone down this road. When men (it’s nearly always men) in the boardrooms of companies that are plainly doing badly reward themselves with huge increases in their already high pay while reducing the numbers and holding down the wages of their workers, their decisions are choices – an exercise of power and of morality – by men who could have decided differently. Men whose counterparts in other countries would have decided differently because public opinion in those countries – and the choices made by their customers and investors – would not have accepted the morality that rules here.

When it comes to practical action we should build on developments already to be seen in our country – ideas which have already gained some traction. We should particularly look for those that citizens can act on without waiting for parliaments and states to give them permission.

Let’s start by publishing and publicly discussing information about income and wealth. Civil service pay scales have always been published – without the heavens falling. There are Scandinavian countries where everyone’s tax return is publicly available so that anyone who wants to know these things can readily find them out. The British have long been secretive about money; a 20th-century version of Victorian prudery about sex. But now that every newspaper and news programme discusses pay inequalities, bonuses, tax evasion and the expense claims of the powerful those taboos are dwindling.

Next we should talk about inequalities in pay and other rewards. What is an acceptable ratio between the average rewards of the top tenth and the bottom tenth of the people working for a firm? A hospital? A university? (That was a question we used to discuss in my student days.) More for those at the top means less for those at the bottom: it all comes out of the same kitty.

Are all grades of an organisation’s workers represented on their governing bodies and remuneration committees? If workers believe it’s worth paying over the odds for an occasional star performer whose contribution will benefit them all, that provides some justification for high pay. But if not…

Encouraged by the research findings of people like Richard Wilkinson and Sir Michael Marmot who have shown that gross inequality damages most people in the society concerned – damage plainly visible in reduced life expectations and more destructive social problems – some local authorities in Britain have set up commissions to measure and report how unequal their city or county is, and how those patterns change year by year. If COSLA, our local authorities’ ‘trade union’, were to encourage all its members to do this, the reports regularly published and their policy implications would be seriously discussed by local media. We could do the same for Scotland as a whole. Our executive repeatedly says they aim to make Scotland a fairer society.

Already, the idea of a ‘living wage’, somewhat higher than the legal minimum, to which every employee should be entitled, has been adopted by Scottish local authorities and some private sector employers. Next we need to ask about the maximum rewards they offer and the ratios between top and bottom figures. Employers who keep those ratios within an agreed range should be entitled to place an appropriate plaque on their doors to show they are ‘fair wage employers’. Then their customers could reflect on these patterns when deciding which coffee bar – or which university – to patronise.

Scotland has taken a world lead (through the Mental Health Act of 2003 and later legislation) by giving everyone who has a mental disorder (illness or learning disability) a legal right to the help of a free and independent advocate. This service helps vulnerable and inarticulate people to explain their needs and wishes to doctors, nurses, social workers – and their own relatives, employers, landlords and others. It has been extended in a patchy way to other groups – frail elderly people, people who have had strokes, and so on. It was a historical accident that this service began with mental disorders. We should give similar rights to every citizen dealing with any public service.

Our deputy first minister has just announced £5.4 millions of extra money for agencies offering advice and advocacy to help people get social security benefits they are entitled to. A good move; but it should not stop with social security – the service whose failings can be blamed on Westminster. And advocacy agencies should be required to give priority to their most frail and vulnerable clients in order to reduce the impact of ‘inverse care laws’. This phrase was invented by public health researchers to describe the tendency for richer and healthier communities to get the best medical services. But every public service tends to have its ‘inverse care’ laws. (Take a careful look at schools, town planning, libraries, parks…)

There are other initiatives of an equalising kind to be seen in our society once we start looking for them. But I should not try my readers’ stamina too severely. Before concluding, I offer a final, broader thought.

Just as we need better figures to inform our discussion of social justice and inequality, we also need better words. The Westminster Government and its supporters in the media have done their best to eliminate the phrase ‘social security’ from our vocabulary. (It was Beveridge’s term, suggesting human rights to freedom from fear.) They have substituted the crude Americanism ‘welfare’, which is humiliating to those who depend on these benefits and to the staff who serve them. They have constantly used words and phrases like ‘strivers’ and ‘hard-working families’ to gain support from low-paid workers for cuts in the services that give most help to those they describe as ‘shirkers’. The fact that most of the cuts will fall on low-paid workers may prompt people to think more carefully about this language.

We must all be careful that we do not unthinkingly adopt the cynically divisive and cruelly humiliating words offered to us by those who regard inequality not as a problem but as a solution. I still think of my comrades and shipmates of 1945 when I reflect on these things.

David Donnison is a professor emeritus in urban studies at Glasgow University. His books include ‘The Politics of Poverty’ and ‘Speaking to Power’