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Equality in historical context.

Equality has long been a unifying rallying cry for the Left. But a series of important shifts in our economy, culture and society since 1945 demand new political strategies. In particular, deindustrialisation and the decline of deference are shifts that the left must take into account when developing policy.

We know that inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient among other things) rocketed in Britain in the 1980s. It increased by over ten percentage points between 1980 and the late 2000s. Often when the causes of this shift are debated two arguments emerge. One frames the growth in inequality as the result of political choice: the effect of Thatcherism or neoliberalism. The other suggests that, whatever Thatcher might have done to accelerate rising inequality, it was, in fact, the inevitable effect of the accelerating globalisation of the 1980s and 1990s. This article points to the importance of recognising two shifts that long predate the 1980s--deindustrialisation and the decline of deference--which must be taken into account if we want to really understand why inequality has risen and what political options there are for tackling it.

Many of the causes of rising inequality in and after the 1980s can certainly be traced back to Thatcherism or 'neoliberalism': hollowing out trade union power; scaling back redistributive tax and transfer schemes; liberalising credit and financial markets, privatisation, and an overwhelming belief in the power of the harsh winds of globalisation to stimulate competition and efficiency.

After Thatcher, inequality levels stabilised but did not fall significantly. This is despite the fact that, after 1997, Labour governments set out to affect the biggest transfer of resources from rich to poor in decades. They were unable to significantly reverse the increase in inequality because the blame for increasing inequality cannot be placed solely at the door of Margaret Thatcher, the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute. Some would now charge that a key failure of New Labour was to accept--even to embrace--the idea that globalisation was inevitable.

There are, however, long-term, secular causes for increases in inequality, quite outside of Thatcherism and globalisation. Of particular importance is deindustrialisation and the shift to a service sector economy. The proportion of the workforce involved in industrial employment has been decreasing since the mid-1950s. That is, long before the end of the Bretton Woods system and the Thatcher years. Globalisation is part of the story, then, but not the whole story. There are important reasons for deindustrialisation quite outside globalisation. One of these is, quite obviously, technological advance, which means that fewer workers are needed to produce the same output. It's significant that Britain now produces almost as many cars as it did in the 1970s, but with a far smaller workforce. (1) The second important point to note is that economic growth tends to increase demand for services more than demand for industrial products. Globalisation, then, is part of the problem, but it's implausible to suggest that many jobs could be 'onshored' again if only we abandoned a belief in the benefits of free trade.

Deindustrialisation has tended to increase inequality for two reasons. It's led to a hollowing-out of the middle of the employment scale. With deindustrialisation we have lost high-paid, high-skill manual jobs. In their place there are a few highly-skilled and highly-paid jobs involving great technical and scientific expertise--and a large number of low-skill, low-paid service sector jobs. Service sector jobs tend to be more credentialised, so that they tend to widen existing educational inequalities that march in step with inequalities in income and wealth.

It should be noted, of course, that the majority of those lost industrial jobs had been held by men. Gender is highly significant in this story. The massive rise in married women working outside the home for much of their married lives is one of the most important facts of postwar Britain. It was on the basis of these new, two-income families that much of the 'affluence' and consumerism of the 1950s and 1960s was based. In those decades it was working-class women who first started to go out to work in great numbers, and this was an important cause of the decreasing levels of inequality between working-class and middle-class households in those decades. After 1969, when the impact of 'second wave' feminism began to be felt in Britain, the increasing numbers of middle-class women working outside the home reversed that effect.

It's also important to note that many of the older industrial jobs were dirty, hard and dangerous. Nevertheless, they generally paid good wages and sustained a particular way of life and set of family relations. There is no getting round the fact that deindustrialisation is a complex phenomenon. Mining provides perhaps the most poignant example. In the postwar decades, many miners and their wives hoped that their own sons would not have to go down the mines. Yet they mourned the loss of these secure, well-paid jobs when they were culled in the 1980s.

Deindustrialisation has been and is, in fact, a key block in the way of certain tenets close to the heart of neoliberalism. The neoliberal paradigm typically wants to roll back the state, and in particular social transfers. But deindustrialisation has been a major factor depressing wages at the bottom of the income distribution. This has meant that successive governments have faced increasing tax credit and housing benefit bills for people in work, as in-work poverty has risen so substantially. It is no coincidence that it was Ted Heath's Conservative government in the 1970s which first brought in such a benefit (Family Income Supplement). For governments of the Right committed to rolling back the state, this rising bill is a significant problem. It is this paradox that lies behind the Conservatives' late change of heart about the minimum wage, or as Osborne decided to call it, the 'living wage', introduced in a half-baked and rhetorically obfuscatory way in 2015.

Neither technology nor globalisation lie outside human control. Governments could and should take more of a role in directing how these processes play out. Community wealth building programmes, for example, help to keep the benefits of economic activity and economic growth within a region. (2) But the deindustrialisation that has occurred in Britain over the past sixty-five years will not be substantially reversed. One challenge for policy is to work within this changed context.

A second significant--and certainly irreversible--shift that has occurred in Britain since 1945 is the decline in deference. This decline in deference has important effects in many areas of life: religion, family, ideas about morality and tradition. It has a huge number of causes, intertwined in complex ways. We can trace the roots of the decline of deference back to industrialisation and urbanisation, liberalism, literacy, Protestantism, the labour movement, the rhetoric of the 'People's War', the welfare state, full employment, affluence, consumerism, secularisation, and many other factors--in some cases stretching back centuries. By the late 1950s and 1960s some combination of these factors was combining to create a significant and far-reaching change in British culture.

The 'satire boom' of the late 1950s, Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation, punk, and many other phenomena can be seen to arise in some way from the decline in deference. It was commented on at the time, as in sociologist John Goldthorpe's 1978 argument that there had been a collapse in deference and 'decay of the status order' as a 'mature' working class was no longer willing to defer to hierarchies of power and advantage with a 'symbolic and moral basis', which were in fact based in a pre-capitalist system and tended to be undermined by the values of a market-based system. (3) Picking up on T.H. Marshall's influential claim that the postwar period finally saw the rights of social citizenship extended to the working classes, Goldthorpe suggested that workers' rising expectations were based not only on empirical experience (two decades of full employment), but also on a 'normative... grounding': the sense of entitlement that citizenship was felt to bestow. (4) The extent to which things have changed can be seen if we recall that, in 1960, the prosecuting council in the obscenity trial over D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover thought it appropriate to ask the jurors if this was 'a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read'. Some of the jurors laughed in his face--but it seems remarkable now that the question was even asked.

Jon Lawrence has suggested that Thatcher was the first political leader to accept that radical individualism was increasing and deference declining in the postwar period. Her attack on what she saw as an effete, consensual establishment and her celebration of the individual and of consumption captured real currents in British culture, and reinforced these trends. (5) New Labour picked up on these trends by loudly celebrating aspiration and the individual, and Labour today needs to find ways to keep on speaking to these desires, while also finding ways to move beyond the old language of New Labour and address new forms of insecurity.

In particular, when thinking about how the Left can go about tackling inequality, the decline of deference has important implications for how we think about the welfare state. We tend, on the Left, to celebrate the huge achievements of Attlee's postwar governments in founding the welfare state. But this shouldn't lead us to neglect the fact that even in the 1960s and 1970s, there were important critiques launched from a range of progressives of the monolithic, bureaucratic, highly gendered system. New Left intellectuals and left-wing sociologists suggested that the welfare state was too inflexible and pointed out that the system assumed that women would remain as housewives for most of their lives. (6) Community activists backed this up, showing how local government programmes could be re-designed by local residents themselves to provide the tailored, responsive services they needed. (7) Disabled activists pointed out that the welfare state of the late 1940s was set up actively to prevent disabled people from taking control of the money used to fund their care--something that only changed in the 1980s after long battles. (8)

In a more individualistic, less deferential society, we should not be looking simply to restore old funding levels and entitlements, vital though they are. We cannot simply argue for going back to the welfare state of the 'golden age of social democracy' of the 1950s and 1960s. We must look to proposals for a reimagined, more individualised welfare state. Flexibility should be given to citizens as owners and users of the welfare state, rather than to employers in their dealings with labour. And attentiveness to the continuing inequalities in life experiences and earnings between men and women will also be critical in redesigning social security for an undeferential age.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is co-editor of Renewal.


(1) Britain made about 1.7m cars in 2016, compared with 1.9m in 1972; see

(2) See M.Brown and M.O'Neill, 'The Road to Socialism is the A59: The Preston Model', Renewal, 24, 2016.

(3) J.H.Goldthorpe, 'The current inflation: towards a sociological account', in F.Hirsch and J.H.Goldthorpe, eds., The political economy of inflation, London, 1978, p.196-7.

(4) See T.H.Marshall, Citizenship and social class, and other essays, Cambridge, 1950.

(5) J.Lawrence, 'Paternalism, class, and the British path to modernity', in S,Gunn and J.Vernon, eds, The peculiarities of liberal modernity in imperial Britain, Berkeley, CA, 2011, p.164.

(6) A.Campsie, 'Populism and Grassroots Politics: "New Left" Critiques of Social Democracy, 1968-1994', Renewal, 25, 2017.

(7) D.Ellis, 'On Taking (Back) Control: Lessons from Community Action in 1970s Britain', Renewal, 25, 2017.

(8) M.Oliver and C.Barnes, The new politics of disablement, Basingstoke, 2012.

Further reading

A.B.Atkinson, 'Distribution of Income and Wealth', in A.H.Halsey and J.Webb, Twentieth Century British Social Trends, Basingstoke, 2000.

A.B.Atkinson, Inequality: what can be done? Cambridge, MA, 2015.

T.Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, MA, 2014.

J.Tomlinson, 'De-industrialisation Not Decline: A New Meta-narrative for Post-war British History', Twentieth Century British History, 27, 2016.

R.G.Wilkinson and K.Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London, 2009.


We must get past the soundbite of 'in favour of equality'. We need policies across the board that raise the life chances and quality of life for those at the bottom, some of whom suffer destitution.

--Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead
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Author:Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Florence
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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