The ego has landed

. . . on sectarianism, social ills, selection, sports appeals and self-regard

When I edited this magazine from 1998 to 2005, it took a sceptical attitude to the Northern Ireland peace process. My view was that it was based on an implicit deal with paramilitaries on both sides: if they refrained from shooting civil servants, politicians and soldiers and if they stopped letting off bombs in the commercial centres, they would be left undisturbed in control of sectarian working-class ghettos in Belfast and Derry, and remain free to extort funds from small businesses in those areas. I wasn’t, I confess, sure what the British government could do instead, but I thought we should be honest about what was happening.

The peace process worked better than I expected, and I have not visited Northern Ireland for several years, but from time to time we learn through press reports that the paramilitaries’ robust approach to law and order (which would delight most Tory backbenchers and tabloid editors) continues to flourish, even if their forces have supposedly disarmed. I suspect the latest killings – of two soldiers and a police officer – are the response to an attempt by the Northern Ireland chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, to strengthen the law of the land in what used to be called no-go areas.

If we are looking for a way out of what looks like a political and economic dead end for Britain and America, an epidemiologist from Nottingham University seems an unlikely figure to provide it. But I think many NS readers will be as inspired as I am by a new book, The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson, whose work I have followed for several years, and Kate Pickett, another academic from York University. Put crudely, it says that inequality explains all our social ills.

Take the items on a typical daily newspaper agenda – drug abuse, educational failure, teenage pregnancy, obesity, violence, imprisonment, infant mortality and ill-health – and you find that the rates for each are higher in more unequal societies, sometimes by an enormous margin: in the most unequal societies, mental illness is five times more common than in the most equal, and obesity six times so.

Wilkinson and Pickett compare not only different countries, but also the 50 US states. They show that greater equality benefits not just the poor, but all occupational groups, because high inequality leads to anxiety and stress, which affect not only those who lack status but also those who fear its loss.

If this sounds obvious, nobody behaves as if it is. Governments spend millions on “initiatives” to tackle illiteracy, obesity, crime, cancer, heart disease, drugs, underage sex and so on, but, if Wilkinson and Pickett are right, they need just one policy: reducing income differentials. We can then get the nanny state out of our lives while simultaneously achieving social justice and greater all-round contentment.

If you want the details, the book is published by Allen Lane (lots of graphs, but no jargon), or, for a summary, go to, which was set up to promote the findings and debate remedies. In these gloomy times – and after 30 years in which, as Wilkinson and Pickett put it, we “lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different” – this work should cheer you up no end.

As we have no equivalent of the US primaries, the real decisions about who enters parliament are made by hardy souls who attend constituency party meetings to select candidates. Or so I thought. The other night, I went to our local Labour Party selection and, with 28 others, heard four candidates explain why they would be brilliant representatives and what they would do about immigration (a worrying preoccupation among our local membership). A fifth candidate didn’t turn up, but he won. Nobody I spoke to in the room had voted for him, but he had apparently scooped many postal votes, a facility I didn’t know was available.

A Labour candidate in our area has as much chance as George W Bush if he ran in Tehran Central, so it doesn’t much matter. But we weren’t even told the votes for each candidate, only the winner’s name. I’m not sure Labour has got the hang of this democracy lark.

Greater use of technology, it is said, would stop the never-ending sports controversies about bad refereeing and umpiring decisions. I wonder whether professional players and managers truly welcome such innovation. In the England-West Indies cricket series, just concluded, the on-field umpires’ decisions on leg-before-wicket and catches could be referred, at either side’s request, to a third umpire watching TV replays in the pavilion. Successful appeals were unlimited but, to prevent every verdict being questioned, each side was allowed only two unsuccessful referrals per innings. The players’ response was to use up their quotas at a very early stage, usually on decisions where the on-field umpire was obviously correct. Then they could resume their usual practice of puffing and blowing, shaking their heads, and generally looking incredulous whenever a decision went against them.

Professional players much prefer to believe that they are victims of injustice rather than accept that failure is the result of any incompetence on their part.

Something in this magazine’s Thatcher issue two weeks ago has been preying on my mind. What did David Owen mean when he said Margaret Thatcher “had beaten me in the 1987 election, and there is from the vanquished to the victor a certain gallantry due”? This implies some titanic Thatcher-Owen struggle. In fact, Labour got nearly 31 per cent of the vote in 1987, against under 10 per cent for Owen’s Social Democrats.

Even the SDP-Liberal Alliance managed only 22.5 per cent and, in the constituencies they fought, Liberal candidates did significantly better than Owen’s followers. To Thatcher, I doubt Owen was more than an irritation, rather than somebody to be “vanquished”. She may or may not have been the greatest peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, but Owen’s was certainly the greatest political ego. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd