Monday, 06 February 2012

Is inequality the new exclusion? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ‘social exclusion’ was, rightly in my view, a major political issue in the UK and the theme under which a good deal of positive social change came about. But I sense that the concept is being replaced in our vocabulary by increasingly assertive discussion about ‘social inequality’. Two recent examples may in time come to illustrate this. Yesterday we had the director general of the Institute of Directors, Simon Walker, unhappy that Sir Fred Goodwin, former boss of RBS, had been stripped of his knighthood: “To do it because … you don’t approve of someone, you think they have done things that are wrong but actually there is no criminality … is inappropriate." So he still doesn’t get it, and shouldn’t be surprised if he is stripped of any credibility he may have had. My dad was a bank manager. He would have been appalled at the crass contortions being attempted by financial services cronies trying to justify their greed at the expense of several million other people. The ramifications of the behaviour of people like Goodwin, who arrogantly remoulded their roles in crude attempts to exclude social responsibility from banking when, as my dad would have observed, it is fundamental and ineluctable, are causing widespread poverty, stress and grief. But today we heard from someone who sounds a little more grown up, the chief executive of Deutsche Bank, who warned of a 'social time-bomb' from wealth and income inequality. Let’s be thankful that this man has shown awareness and a willingness to speak out. Who knows, he could start a trend. And maybe the money from the RBS chairman's declined bonus could go towards copies of The spirit level given to people like Goodwin and Walker and thousands like them, as part of mandatory workshops run by the Equality Trust? It would be good to see them shamed into learning something. Social exclusion as a principle theme of policy emerged from long-standing debates in Europe about poverty in the 1980s, which mattered because they expanded to include other forms of exclusion. Will something similar happen with ‘social inequality’, which is emerging in the context of 'public concern' about relative wealth? Social inequality is not just about wealth, is it? When do we get to the bit about power?

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