Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: In an unequal society, we all suffer

Mental illness, obesity and crime are all worse in nations of greatest inequality

Monday 23 March 2009 01:00 GMT

True-blue Tories are sick of posing and posturing. You can't blame them. It must feel itchy and uncomfortable under the gowns they are now forced to wear, with their billowing, New Tory promises. The electorate must be persuaded that the party is modern, urbane, egalitarian and socially responsible, led by nice boys. That is the Cameron strategy and thus far was proving to be effective.

I am sure the nice boys believe some of their own PR and like how they look in the mirror, smart and appealing. Sadly too many of their own do not and are revolting. On Any Questions at the weekend Boris threw off the irksome disguise to reveal real Conservative values – naked greed and seething class interests even in this time of global rage against extreme capitalism.

On Friday David Cameron said he would keep the 45 per cent tax on high earners that Labour now – belatedly – wants to put in place, after decades of indulging those who ripped off their companies and the state. That same evening the London Mayor undermined his leader by taking a swipe at those seeking to clobber the rich, energetic wealth creators, without whom there would be no enterprise. They never learn do they? Does this ambitious blonde not see the detritus of this bankrupt ideology all around him? Clearly not, and nor do John Redwood and others for whom Cameron is a traitor to "real" conservatism.

Thatcher and Reagan were the first fervent missionaries of the dogma that has brought the world to its knees. Set the makers of money free, they said, and everyone, even the winter birds in our gardens, would grow plump on the surfeit. Happiness would flood the lands to bring on plentiful harvests.

Blair came in and saw no reason not to carry on with the charmed and charming credo. Then, the bandits were blessed by the gods and governments. Peter Mandelson, memorably said: "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich." That included him, Blair, and many of the New Labourites for whom political victory was a stairway to mammon. And an affirmation of their right to be as supercilious and callous as the previous incumbents.

Someone needs to list the wealth made and taxes paid by all those millionaires and billionaires, wooed first by the Tories then Labour. Too many felt we owed them gratitude, respect, seats in the Lords, special privileges, the right not to pay into the public purse whilst stealing from it.

As a social democrat perhaps I am viscerally (and irrationally) repulsed by the super-affluent and their show-off lifestyles. But others have looked at their effect coolly, and tested the model. What they find is worse than anyone could have predicted. The most recent study is the most compelling and shocking. All free marketeers should be made to memorise it from cover to cover.

In The Spirit Level, two sober academics – Richard Wilkinson and his partner Kate Pickett, both medical epidemiologists – have published strong evidence to prove that in unequal societies everyone suffers – even those who think they have it made for generations to come. They looked at 20 of the richest nations and compared various social and health problems, measuring those against an index of equality. The US, Portugal (feudal in the near past) and the UK are the most unequal nations, with the top 20 per cent earning nine times more than the bottom 20 per cent. Japan, Finland, Norway and Sweden are where the money gap is smallest.

Teenage pregnancies, mental illness, life expectancy, obesity, illiteracy, homicide, crime are all worse in the states of greater inequality and not only for the poorest but for all citizens and residents. Spain is more equal than its neighbour, Portugal and you can see how vastly different are the social ills in the two countries. There is even evidence that in unequal societies, the people have higher levels of stress hormones.

The UK was more egalitarian between 1974 and 1978 than it has been since and the divide between the top and bottom today is deeper than it has ever been. True, the economic miracle made many more millionaires and don't we see that in the glass palaces of London, the surge in private members' clubs, fine dining, designer gear, exorbitantly priced wine, art, jewels and cars? That meant many more servants were needed (bless the masters) and the service industry grew exponentially. The middle classes found their incomes rising too, and a second home became as "essential" as the second car and private education. The space between us and them – the poorest – widened disastrously.

The US spends more on healthcare than anywhere in the world but a baby in Greece has a higher life expectancy than a baby in the planet's the richest nation. The prison population in Britain has doubled since 1990 and quadrupled in the States since the 1970s. Trust and cohesion are abysmally low in these states. The sense of injustice on the one hand and paranoia on the other makes social ease impossible.

Boris doesn't get it. For him it should be business as usual, as it has been since he was born and before that when Britain was believed to be a matchless nation of plucky entrepreneurs with insatiable ambitions who kept the islands afloat and prosperous. It was never true back when the seafaring nation sent forth the intrepid to come back with gold and cash to fill the royal coffers. The poor were kept wretched as they were during the Industrial Revolution and the days of Imperial glory. Inequality was a price happily paid for these capitalist adventures and class, like caste, became absolute destiny.

In 1999, Blair said his government would liberate Britons from the forces of inherited conservatism and would make a nation built not on class privilege or background but the "equal worth of all". If he ever meant it, that vision was too soon overwhelmed by his impulses to please the affluent. Brown has followed suit. A far bigger disaster than the global downturn is the society we have been left with. It will take decades to reverse the politics and economics of gross disparity. Obama seems to understand the challenge. We have no such leader and are therefore condemned to live in a poor little rich little country.


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