What we can learn from Scandinavia about equality

A talk in Norway by one of the authors of the bestselling "Spirit Level" is highly revealing.

Anyone who has read The Spirit Level -- Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's statistical bestseller explaining why greater equality results in happier, safer and generally nicer societies -- will know that many of the charts the authors produce plot income inequality from low to high along the x-axis, and some other health or social variable, such as teenage births or educational performance, along the y-axis.

And they will know that, on such charts, the Scandinavian countries almost always keep themselves out of trouble in the bottom left-hand corner of the graph. They have relatively low levels of inequality, and accordingly they are less afflicted by the problems to which Wilkinson and Pickett draw attention.

How intriguing, then, to attend a talk given by Richard Wilkinson in Oslo on Thursday, during the book's launch in Scandinavia. Would an argument that generally holds the Scandinavian model up as an exemplar hold up to scrutiny itself from Scandinavians?


Double-edged sword

There are certainly many people in Norway who would argue against the claims of The Spirit Level. In particular, the right-wing parties (FrP and Høyre) question the extent to which a highly redistributive social model is even any longer sustainable. Whetting the appetite further, it was one of their members of parliament, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen -- an exponent of Hayek -- who had been asked to respond to Wilkinson's talk.

And highly revealing it was, too. Many of the arguments Isaksen put forward were of the standard denialist nature (correlation is not the same as causation; there is no proof that redistribution actually creates better living conditions; and so on). Most of these critiques can be countered easily enough. His argument that new technologies available in the richest countries are allowing us to live longer, for example, is predicated on the marginal gains in life years enjoyed by a select group of individuals and entirely overlooks the opportunity cost of the years of life lost in rich societies as a result of the pursuit of those few extra months by the wealthiest.

Taken on its own terms, Isaksen's critique pointed to little more than the safe assumption that he is probably against health-care reform in the US.

But the broader implications of a Scandinavian politician's critique of Wilkinson and Pickett's thesis are both important and relevant to the present political moment in the UK. Not least, they ought to be given careful thought by those Labour politicians now brandishing The Spirit Level as a manual of good practice as they go about their electioneering.

First is the ease with which the findings of the book can be turned against it. The general logic underlying Isaksen's argument, for example, was that The Spirit Level was entirely correct in its diagnosis of the natural tendency to division in society and he was grateful (politically speaking) for the proof. Thus do all those painstakingly compiled (and painful to contemplate) charts put together by Wilkinson and Pickett become a tool in the opposition's hands.

Isaksen was more than happy to agree with Wilkinson's analysis of society's "natural" tendency to division, for example, because it allowed him to claim that, for this reason, there was no reason to believe that more redistribution would actually result in greater long-term equality.

This may be flawed reasoning, but neither pointing out the degree of inequality that arises under governments of the right (or of the left-neoliberalist persuasion) nor even -- it seems -- actually attaining a high degree of redistributive equality, as has been achieved in Scandinavia, appear to be capable of overcoming it. In the UK, for example, David Cameron has got on very nicely with his Broken Britain line. And in Norway, a fear of the power of the right's anti-redistribution agenda of the past ten to 15 years has led the Norwegian left to slash taxes on capital income and stockholders' dividends, while in power. As Magnus Marsdal of the think tank Manifest points out, Norway's Gini coefficient has been steadily rising as a result.

Second is the issue of what the arguments against greater redistribution of income most conspicuously overlook. Here, too, there are lessons for the UK, particularly in the context of discussion around the top rate of income tax and taxes on bonuses, say.


Principles of care

One of the things that has helped slow the effect of recent reversals in the actual amount of income redistributed in Norway, in particular, is the much greater sense of social cohesion that exists in the country. This is not the result of the shops there being shut on Sundays, or the lack of a financial sector, but the consequence of many years of redistributive policies reaching deep into the fabric of society and nourishing its bones.

Deep down, Norway and the other Scandinavian societies still have it right because there is a host of other social policies (affordable childcare and longer paternity leave for men among them) that are sustainable on the back of a redistributive economy, but which themselves provide the basis for a more caring society. And it is care -- as a political philosophy, and as most convincingly argued by the likes of the American scholar Joan Tronto -- that provides the basic capital for mending broken societies.

This is the argument that now needs to be won in the UK. The important points made by The Spirit Level cannot get us all the way there. Moreover, they are liable to be misappropriated by the right unless the left finds a way of mobilising popular consensus around what people have in common, as much as around the things they are divided by.

Wilkinson was given a telling-off during the questions that followed his talk for at times seeming to get caught up in the almost scientific nature of the social divisions he was describing. That was probably justified, as socio-economic tendencies are not natural laws, no matter how strong the correlation.

But in keeping with the spirit of his point -- that the relationship between inequality and social ills is at least entirely statistically significant, and more so, it is morally compelling -- perhaps we also need an easy way of remembering what it is that can help us overcome such inequalities: one that needs to be remembered, it seems, in Norway, Sweden and Denmark as much as it still needs to be learned in the UK.

So here it is. E=MC2: Equality = More Care Squared.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear