Peak inequality: which way down?

MFL activist Tom McDonough writes: “Blade runner society” awaits if inequality increases

Nearly 100 Londoners heard inequality guru and Oxford Geography professor Danny Dorling tell My Fair London's October meeting that Britain’s extreme level of income inequality had peaked. Inequality would have to come down unless we were willing to become a “blade runner society”. 

Claiming that history shows income inequality is cyclical, a cautiously optimistic Dorling told London inequality activists that the gap between rich and poor in Britain had last peaked in 1913 and had reached a new upper limit in 2018. “Over the long cycle of history inequality goes up and down and all inequalities eventually come down,” he said, adding that they could either fall fast, as in the case of Japan and Germany, or slowly, as with Holland.

Pointing out that the events accompanying the starts of declines in inequality were not always pleasant, Dorling warned that this new shift towards greater equality may be accompanied by painful social and economic upheavals, with the fallout from Brexit being chief among them. 

Income equality increased in Britain from the start of World War One until the late 1970s, when we embarked on a 40 year political and economic experiment that made us what we are today: the most unequal country in Europe and the second most unequal in the rich world, he told the audience. Such abnormally large gaps in remuneration and status between the better and worse off members of our country had resulted in a raft of problems that people could no longer accept.

Illustrating his point, Dorling pointed out that in 2014 the UK infant mortality rate rose and our average life expectancy fell, making us the only country in Europe to experience regression in these key health indicators. “Our education system is the most divided in Europe. Our children are segregated according to an “apartheid” system. It’s not unfair to describe it like that,” he added.

Arguing that we can no longer tolerate the dehumanizing impact of inequality on ourselves and our fellow citizens, he said that grass roots pressure from ordinary people and groups such as MFL would result in a slow, possibly painful, shift towards the more reasonable levels of inequality seen in societies like Finland or Holland. 

“Back in the 1930s, twenty years after the previous peak, there was a change in the moral sentiment; it was thought to be wrong to be so greedy when there was so much trouble in the world. The shame is beginning to happen again and we are potentially at that change moral sentiment now.”

Not everyone, however, feels ashamed of the state we’re in or agrees that greed and extreme wealth and income inequality have a negative impact on people. 

Asked to comment on the position that economic inequality causes social and health problems, Councillor Benjamin Harris-Quinney, Chairman of The Bow Group, a conservative think-tank, said: "Inequality of wealth is not necessarily a problem in itself so long as citizen enfranchisement and competition remains in the system. So long as those on the lowest rung of the economic spectrum are still at a reasonable level of living standards it may not be an issue that there are those with vastly greater wealth.”

But a buoyant Dorling insisted that while some members of our elites would never join the fight for greater equality, the message that inequality hurts had gained enough traction among people to ensure that our course was now destined to change. When Conservative politicians begin to talk about it, we know something is beginning to shift.

Our leaders would not be able to make people accept any worsening of the situation unless they “bring in tanks”, he said.

In terms of evidence that we are on the cusp of a reversal in fortunes, Dorling pointed to the reductions in pay seen in 2016/17 among Chief Executives, arguing these cuts were sure-fire signs of a change in attitude towards wealth and greed. “Round about 2016/17 we saw the first reported fall in my lifetime of Chief Executive Officers’ pay. There was an average drop of a million euros for CEOs,” he said, adding that the fall in top banker salaries over the last two years offered us another reason to believe that inequality was on its way down. 

A further possible sign is that house prices have been falling since 2016. In Amsterdam, house prices dropped for 250 years after 1725 when inequality began decreasing in Holland, he said. 

Enthusiastic equality activists questioned Dorling for half an hour at the end of his talk but appeared accepting of his central argument, with no one challenging the optimistic outlook. 

“I think we can take all the hope that we can get when we’re working on these issues, but the main message is to not be complacent and to remain vigilant in thinking about how we can be a positive force for reducing inequality,” said Allison Corkery, an LSE Atlantic Fellows activist and student who was present at the talk. 

Danny Dorling’s new book Peak Inequality: Britain's ticking time bomb is available in paperback.

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