What Nick Clegg doesn't know about equality

The most equal countries also have the highest social mobility.

Once more following in David Cameron's footsteps, Nick Clegg is delivering tonight's Hugo Young memorial lecture. A preview of his speech appears in today's Guardian, in which the Lib Dem leader suggests that increasing social mobility, not achieving income equality, should be the ultimate goal of progressives.

He writes:

Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality. Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation. That's when societies become closed, stratified and divided.

The problem with Clegg's argument is that the countries with the highest levels of social mobility are those with the lowest levels of inequality. As the graph below (from the excellent book The Spirit Level) shows, countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Canada, where income inequality is low, have far higher levels of social mobility than the United States and the UK, where income inequality is high. This is hardly surprising: greater inequalities of outcome make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages to their children. Clegg's suggestion that progressives must prioritise either social mobility or income inequality is empirically unsound.

Social mobility

The data on equality and social mobility also undermines his argument against the 50p tax rate. He attempts to characterise Ed Miliband as an "old progressive" due to his support for a permanent 50p rate. But it is no coincidence that the most equal countries in the world are also those with the highest rates of income tax. Japan, the most equal country in the world, has had a top rate of 50 per cent for many years, Sweden, the second most equal country in the world, has a top rate of 56.6 per cent. The correlation continues: Denmark has a top rate of 55.4 per cent, Norway a top rate of 47.8 per cent and Finland a top rate of 49.6 per cent.

Clegg's refusal to acknowledge all of the above reveals either his ignorance or his disingenuity. Until he accepts that the most socially mobile societies are also the most equal, no one should take his "progressive" claims seriously.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496