Boris's championing of inequality is a recipe for destroying social mobility

The mayor presented social mobility as compensation for inequality but it's the gap between the rich and poor that erodes opportunity.

We can at least commend Boris Johnson for his candour. Unlike those in his party who hide behind euphemisms and platitudes, the mayor presented rampant inequality as both inevitable and desirable in his Margaret Thatcher lecture last night. Differences in IQ, the efficient operation of the free market and the need for economic incentives all meant it was "futile" for politicians to even try to narrow the gulf between the rich and the rest. "Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2% have an IQ above 130," he said, oblivious to the fact that this gap isn't the cause of inequality but the result of it

But while delivering this bleakly Hobbesian message, he attempted to sweeten the pill by echoing John Major's lamentation of stagnant social mobility and calling for a dramatic expansion of opportunity. In one passage he remarked:

I worry that there are too many cornflakes who aren’t being given a good enough chance to rustle and hustle their way to the top. We gave the packet a good shake in the 1960s; and Mrs Thatcher gave it another good shake in the 1980s with the sale of the council houses. Since then there has been a lot of evidence of a decline in social mobility, as Sir John Major has trenchantly pointed out.

And in another:

It seems to me that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try and stifle wealth creation, and futile to stamp out inequality, we should only tolerate this wealth gap on two conditions. One, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and two, that we provide opportunity for those who can

But his presentation of social mobility as a form of compensation for inequality was almost comically inappropriate. As anyone with the most cursory grasp of the subject knows, reduced opportunity is the inevitable result of greater inequality: it's harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart. As the empirical masterpiece The Spirit Level showed (see graph), it is the most unequal countries, such as the UK and the US, that have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, that have the highest. In the case of Britain, it was after Boris's heroine took office, and the gap between the rich and the poor became a chasm (the gini coefficient rose from 12.9 in 1978 to 22.2 in 1990), that social mobility began to stagnate. 

Confronted by this unavoidable truth, Boris offered nothing resembling a solution. In his recent report on the subject for the coalition, Alan Milburn wisely noted that "deep-rooted inequality and flatlining mobility have been decades in the making" and that "in most developed countries there has been a declining share of economic growth going to labour (and a higher share to capital) at the same time as there has been growing wage inequality. In the UK, the share of national income going to wages of workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution decreased by a quarter between 1979 and 2009."

But Boris had nothing say to about repairing the broken link between growth and earnings. Instead, he called for the return of academic selection under the guise of "academic competition" (perpetuating the myth of grammar schools as engines of social mobility) and sought to reassure us that those benefiting most from inequality were already paying their fair share. He told his audience: "Today, when taxes have been cut substantially, the top one per cent contributes almost 30 per cent of income tax [one might note that he is among them]; and indeed the top 0.1 per cent - just 29,000 people - contribute fully 14 per cent of all taxation."

Yet this statistic tells us less about what has happened to the tax system than it does about what has happened to the income system. Over the period in question, the earnings of the rich have soared to hitherto unimaginable levels. As a recent OECD study showed, the share of income taken by the top 1% of UK earners increased from 7.1% in 1970 to 14.3% in 2005, while the top 0.1% took 5%. Quite simply, the rich are paying more because they're earning more. Is this really cause for us to "fete them and decorate them and inaugurate a new class of tax hero"? If 11 million low and middle earners receive the pay rise they have been denied since 2003, they'll pay more tax too. In fact, compared to the rich, they're already paying the lion's share. As the ONS recently found, owing to VAT and other regressive levies, the least well-off households pay 36.6% of their income in tax, while the wealthiest pay 35.5%. Had the coalition taken Boris's advice and cut the top rate of income tax to 40p (with a 30p rate down the line) , that gap would be even wider. 

A more progressive tax system would narrow the gap between rich and poor and tilt the odds in favour of social mobility but here, as elsewhere, the policies promoted by Boris aren't the solution to a society in which birth determines destiny, they're the cause of it. 

Boris Johnson declared in his Margaret Thatcher lecture that it was "futile to stamp out inequality". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.