25 July 2019

Inequalities in the UK:

New Discourses, Evolutions and Actions

David Fée and Anémone Kober-Smith
2018, Emerald Publishing, 392 pages,
ISBN 9781787144804

Reviewer: Kevin Gardiner, member, Cardiff Capital Region City Deal Growth Partnership

This is a collection of 18 essays (including the introduction) addressing various aspects of economic and social inequality in the UK, edited by two Paris-based professors of British Studies. The contributors are academics from a range of social science disciplines, not just economists: this results in a wider range of material and methodologies than would otherwise be the case.

Topics tacked include: a review of recent trends in UK income inequality (though “recent” here is conditioned by data availability and publication lag); thoughts on the economic impact of inequality, and the changing nature of the egalitarian debate; a comparison of inequality in the UK and the rest of the EU; regional issues (North/South, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and Paris compared, a case study from Lowestoft); and inequality in the context of education, health, housing, gender and immigration concerns.

It could be an easier read: the prose is dry, the data are (unavoidably) patchy and unconvincing, and some of the tables and charts could be clearer. Some of the essays are very narrow. 

There is an assumption throughout the collection that things have got a lot worse since the Global Financial Crisis, but the data cited don’t really show that convincingly. In some cases, they don’t show that at all. Nor does the UK stand out from the rest of the EU crowd in terms of recent developments: Gini coefficients are higher, but the gap doesn’t seem to have widened.

The contributors’ normative views are not difficult to discern. To be fair, you wouldn’t specialise in this field – or, as a reader, even open the book – if you felt all was well with the world. However, sometimes this results in the casual assumption of shared values (including a reverence for Piketty ) and loose language that, for me at least, is counter-productive.

The essay on the economic impact is a case in point. Phrases such as “the crippling problem of inequality” are really not helpful: how does inequality – as opposed to poverty – “cripple”? We can accept that It is a bad thing without necessarily expecting it to translate into a statistically significant shortfall in GDP (for which evidence is anyway tenuous). One chapter title begins “It’s terrible having no job…”, which I thought managed to patronise both its subjects and the reader.   

Another example, in the essay on educational opportunities, is the casual dismissal of a lack of aspiration as a root cause of educational under-achievement. I suspect many educationalists would say it is one of the most important drivers of working class under-representation at top universities.

But the essay on the Labour Party and egalitarianism seems objective and (in my view) insightful: its author suggests that public support for such policies is in fact shrinking, the current bandwagon  notwithstanding. It also suggests that benefit fraud is exaggerated, which rings true: many years ago, when working as a clerical officer helping to administer supplementary benefit in a tough economic climate, I learned that more benefit went unclaimed than was likely defrauded.

The editors note (triumphantly) at the outset that “The inequality question is back and is here to stay.” The world is undoubtedly unequal, and unfairly so; but it always has been, and it can be a bit jarring to have the obvious pointed out.

Does inequality (of outcome, opportunity, income or wealth?) matter more (for example) than  poverty (relative or absolute?), or individual freedom? Will more concerted measures to reduce it do more damage than they alleviate? The first question is a value judgement. The second is an empirical one, but econometrics is of less use than history in answering it.