Britain: our divided nation

The income gap between rich and poor goes on getting bigger, yet we seem remarkably unconcerned

Income inequality is at a historic high in Britain, but according to new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the public is becoming pessimistic about the possibility of changing this. In a report last month on British attitudes to inequality, the social policy research charity found that although a large and enduring majority of people think the income gap between rich and poor is too large, there is little understanding about the extent of inequality in Britain and a poor grasp of how wide the gap has become in recent years.

People still express concern about unequal distribution of wealth, but are clear that they don't want to pay higher taxes. Many consider today's income inequalities unfair but equally they firmly believe that people get what they deserve. Most significantly, among complex and, the report's authors admit, contradictory results, they found a strong pessimism that poverty would fall within the next ten years.

The extent to which inequality has increased has been well documented in recent years. An Institute for Public Policy Research report in May showed that the proportion of wealth held by Britain's richest 10 per cent rose from 47 per cent in the 1990s to 54 per cent in 2004. And another report, from the Rowntree Foundation in July, noted that over the past 15 years, more households had fallen below the poverty line. In 2001, one in four households was classed as "breadline poor".

But though a large majority of Britons still find the growing income gap unacceptable, we appear less certain now than before Labour came to power in 1997. Back in 1993, 87 per cent agreed that the income gap was too large. In 2004, only 73 per cent found the (even greater) gap unacceptable.

More worrying for policymakers who believe in increasing equality as a social goal is that the public appears confused and ignorant about the extent of the problem. The Rowntree Foundation describes the general knowledge of actual distribution of wealth as "limited".

"The gap between high- and low-paid occupations is far greater than people think it should be, or would consider appropriate," the authors write. For example, asked what they think a chairman of a large national corporation earns, most would say about £125,000. A more appropriate salary, they believe, would be about £75,000. In fact, at the time of the research (2004), the real average salary of a chairman of large national corporation was £555,000. Similarly, those questioned thought an Appeal Court judge would be overpaid at £80,000 and should earn £50,000; the actual salary then was £139,900. Despite the old Tory gibe of "the politics of envy", the public tends to estimate the pay gap rather benignly. The Rowntree Foundation's respondents believed that the income of a company chairman was 12.5 times higher than that of an unskilled worker. In fact, it was more than 40 times higher.

Nor does the public hold particularly trenchant or united views on how to deal with huge pay discrepancies. Support for wealth redistribution increased between 1985 and 1995 - two years before Labour came to power - but then declined substantially from 44 per cent in 1996 to 32 per cent in 2004.

Karen Rowlingson, professor of social policy at the Uni versity of Birmingham and co-author of the Rowntree Foundation report, told the New Statesman that this may be connected to values in the UK. "These are a bit of a mix between Europe and America. [Britons] think that if you work hard you can make it, and therefore if you don't succeed it is because you haven't worked hard enough."

The report points out that even those who agree the income gap is too large may not believe that governments should intervene to force a redistribution of wealth. Younger people are the most hostile to redistribution, Rowlingson finds: "Scepticism of young people towards inequality in general and redistribution in particular is quite worrying."

She elaborates: "Taking from the rich and giving to the poor is not something that most people in the UK want. They are more willing to invest in services, like education and health."

Why this lack of support for redistribution? Certainly, the "r" word was banned from Labour vocabulary for some time, even if the reality was that, as chancellor, Gordon Brown practised redistribution by stealth to avoid even deeper inequalities. The Office for National Statistics showed in May that Brown used tax credits, for example, to boost incomes for the less well-off. The former Treasury financial secretary John Healey told the BBC recently that, as a result of such policies, families from the poorest fifth of the population were £3,000 a year better off than in 1997.

But a culture hostile to equality was created by remarks such as that of Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2005: "It's not that I don't care about the gap [between high and low incomes], so much as I don't care if there are people who earn a lot of money. They're not my concern. I do care about people who are without opportunity, disadvantaged and poor."

With such statements, the Labour Party failed to combat the public's gloomy view that inequality is inevitable.

"You cannot have equality of opportunities when people don't start from the same point. Inequality is a barrier to aspirations," says Rowlingson.

Will the former redistributive chancellor change the culture? His March Budget was short on handouts and, in response to new statistics on child poverty, he concentrated on measures to encourage parents to work. There is little parliamentary push for major tax realignments. The Liberal Democrat shadow secretary for children, schools and families, David Laws, recently said: "It is a national disgrace that Britain is the developed country where your chances in life are most dependent on your family background." But the Lib Dems have abandoned as a party their policy of a 50p rate of income tax for those with incomes above £100,000.

The Conservatives, too, who talked of redistribution in 2005, have recently been silent on the issue.

The Rowntree Foundation findings suggest that Britain risks falling into a gulf of apathy made even deeper by ignorance of the true nature of our current economic segregation.

"In Africa, the feeling you cannot do anything about things is called compassion fatigue," says Rowlingson. "Leaders have to prove action against inequality is possible."

Rich and poor

1997 "The boundaries of the welfare state are going to have to change"
Tony Blair, days before becoming prime minister

2001 "It's not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money"
Tony Blair, rejecting higher tax rates for the rich

2006 "I don't think making the top 1 per cent richest poorer makes the 10 per cent poorest richer"
David Cameron, leader of the opposition

2007 "This Budget was an opportunity to rebalance the tax system in favour of the less wealthy and the Chancellor has failed to do that"
Menzies Campbell on Gordon Brown's final Budget as chancellor

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain