‘The impact of inequality on societies is now increasingly well understood - higher crime, health problems and mental illness, lower educational achievements, social cohesion and life expectancy.’
Inequalities reinforce social exclusion: it's hardly a contentious assertion, it's been around for a while, the data seem to support it, but is it really ‘well understood’? Understood as well as, for instance, the principle that people who are in positions of privilege, wealth and power will distort whatever they have to, in order to protect those positions?
No it probably isn’t, not in the context of Westminster and the outlook of the influential Centre for Social Justice. This was made clear to me at the launch of the CSJ’s second ‘Breakthrough Britain’ programme the other day. The new programme addresses the same six themes as the first: family breakdown; economic dependency and worklessness; educational failure; drug and alcohol addiction; serious personal debt; and the role of the voluntary sector.
The reports of the first programme, published in 2007, were sub-titled ‘policy recommendations to the Conservative Party’. So has no progress been made on these themes in the interim? Are social conditions worse, or better, in the CSJ’s eyes? Perhaps they are comparable. We know that inequalities have widened; but perhaps that doesn’t matter?
The six themes strikingly avoid any reference to disadvantage experienced collectively, or to collective responses, thus reinforcing the notion that poverty and social exclusion are just experienced at the individual or household level and have to be addressed by the individual or household. I’m not sure why another bash at them is needed (I mean at the themes, not the people) nor why other forces that contribute to or might help reduce exclusion are not being considered.
So when, after the introductory speeches, Titus Alexander asked, from the floor, where the principles of equalities might feature in the process, it seemed a wholly reasonable question and an opportunity for the chair to say something like ‘yes of course, it’s fundamental, obviously we didn’t have time to cover everything in our introduction, but…’
Not a bit of it. The idea that inequalities have anything to do with the problems of disadvantage and poverty in this country – or that addressing them might have anything to do with the solutions – was abruptly dismissed, on the grounds that the data do not necessarily explain why some countries have relatively high income inequality but fewer negative social indicators. (It might depend on which indicators you choose to look at I suppose).
(Re-reading my post from a previous CSJ thematic launch, I note there was a pertinent question dismissed on that occasion too).
A short while later, another voice from the floor challenged the chairs running the six inquiries to think long term about the potential to reduce the roles of the state to zero and encourage the voluntary sector to take on all – he repeated ‘all’ – those roles. With CSJ's claimed political independence looking more threadbare than ever, those assembled took this in their stride, without any kind of reflection on the implications of this manifestly nonsensical ideological folly. (This man told us all that his wife is an MP, so presumably her role would in due course have to become voluntary. The irony went unobserved. I can't be sure, but I think I was the only one smiling at this point. But the idea of a voluntary parliament is refreshing, is it not?)
Those two moments in an otherwise dull event have scared me rather more than they might have done at another time, I suppose because of the crystallising polarisation in this country: we face a division of increasing starkness between the Haves and the have nots, which these attitudes only serve to sharpen. Since the viewpoint on the community and voluntary sector seems to be a Cameronian stance that interprets it in terms of charitable philanthropy (no sign of mutual aid or community action) the disempowerment of people in poverty will be very much part of the tight framework being devised to keep them closed in. Those few who are lucky enough to break out, earn lots of money and not trouble the elite, will be welcomed into the ranks of the Haves (bless you kind sir). The rest will be left to fester.
On leaving, I tried to charitable as I thought about the man who stood up to call for the progressive and complete eradication of the state. I hope he did not trip on a publicly-paid-for kerb into the path of any passing public transport, was helped to his feet by a passing peasant and had to be comforted by a publicly-resourced pleb police officer while he waited under a publicly-funded street light for a national health service ambulance, was taken to a hospital to be cared for by public servants using technology that had been developed in publicly-funded universities by people educated in state schools. But given the level of intelligence exhibited, I doubt he’d have had the capacity to reflect on what that might have meant.
Let’s acknowledge that in influential policy arenas in Westminster it is deemed reasonable to plot the maintenance and regulation by the voluntary sector of, for example, our governance, water, public health and safety services and so on - obviously including all those which the private sector has shown itself incompetent to run.
That doesn’t just reflect a shameful ignorance of the fact that most voluntary action carried out in this country has nothing whatsoever to do with philanthropy or formal voluntary organisations: it also illustrates the desperate inability of those on the political right to grasp the concept of collective social value.