They Might Be Giants: Social Justice and the Forgotten Scotland
The Scotsman, March 10th 2012
A new vogue has swept across the globe: concern about inequality.
From the Davos World Economic Forum to Occupy Wall Street, from Barack Obama to David Cameron and Ed Miliband, there is an acute awareness of this issue, from talking about the superabundant wealth of the top 1% to the constant political chatter about ‘fairness’.
The world is perilously unequal and growing more so. One billion people per day go hungry while another one billion are obese. GDP per capita of the richest and poorest tenths of the world has a ratio of 39:1, between households of 98:1.
The last quarter of the 20th century saw a spiralling of increasing inequality. Sub-Saharan Africa saw its GDP per capita fall by 0.5% per annum on average between 1975 and 2005. Central and Southern America saw by 2000 average incomes at 84% of 1980 levels; and in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that figure over the same period fell to 70% of 1980 value.
In the same period, the UK and the US have become two of the most unequal countries in the developed world; the US the second most unequal and the UK the fourth, with Singapore in first place and Portugal third.
The Davos World Economic Summit saw for the first time inequality on the agenda. ‘Severe income disparity’ was put as the world’s top risk over the next ten years, joint with fiscal imbalances and ahead of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, the word ‘inequality’ appeared only once in the 130 page programme.
Charles Murray, author of the concept of ‘the underclass’ more than 20 years ago, has just published a new book about inequality in the US, ‘Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010’. Murray has form as a controversialist, having previously published on race and intelligence, and this book focusing exclusively on white America, has taken the country by storm, tapping into national anxiety about the country’s future.
Murray argues, in a thesis which has differences with the UK but with significant lessons, that ‘a new upper class’ has emerged in the US made up of the most successful 5% of adults, concentrated in management, professions and senior media positions.
This group increasingly lead isolated lives; they live in what he calls ‘SuperZips’, privileged bubbles such as Manhattan south of 96th Street and a small number of areas across the country where wealth and educational attainment are highly concentrated.
Most crucially, this group increasingly live apart from the rest of America. They are rich and intelligent, sent by their parents to the best universities where they inter-marry and then send their offspring to the same universities.
Murray sees alongside this new elite ‘a new lower class’ which is made up of one-fifth of all whites. In this group, many men do not work, many children are brought up in one parent households, and neighbourhoods are often in crisis and decline.
Murray’s solution is idealistic and a tad one-dimensional. He proposes ‘a civic great awakening’ whereby the rich of the land give time to come out of their cocoons and spend time with those less fortunate, mentoring, aiding and supporting them in life. This proposal can clearly be mocked but it is a kind of voluntary national service, or Christian sense of community which has an American appeal. From the man who gave us the term ‘underclass’ and introduced the idea of ‘welfare dependency’ into polite society, this is significant.
The thinking of Murray may be laughable to cosmopolitan Europeans but at least he is talking about how we put society back together, rebuild the common bonds of obligation, and ask individuals to contribute to this. There is an element of Steve Hilton’s vision of ‘the big society’ in this.
That is a debate that we need to begin in Scotland and the UK. Where are the mobilisations of time and imagination dealing with the grotesque inequalities which disfigure Scotland? Where is the drive for us to aid the generations of families trapped and suffocated on welfare? Who will speak for forgotten Scotland?
Isn’t this the terrain that the great Scottish debate should be about? Greater self-government or independence, yes, but for what end? To reconnect our society, to find a moral purpose which cares for all our citizens and asks all of us of consider that we have a role to play. Building a culture of interindependence and individual responsibility.
It is just coming up for the twenty years since the Commission on Social Justice was launched which had a huge impact on New Labour’s thinking on welfare and society. It concluded its work and made its recommendations just at the point of John Smith’s tragic death.
Why cannot Scotland across the political spectrum recommit to those noble values of John Smith? To commit twenty years on from the Commission to a new social covenant which could be outlined and announced to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death.
That could involve Scotland saying we will abolish in twenty years time from now child poverty: a commitment Labour and Tories at Westminster are notionally signed up too, but say nothing of north of the border. After the bold New Labour boast of eliminating child poverty, politicians will have to tread carefully, building alliances, connecting it and making it real to the public.
We could begin to tackle the challenge of the working poor, rather than falling prey to the stereotypes of the feckless poor on benefits. We need to have a practical vision of what good work entails in Scotland and its consequences for employers. Much of this can be advanced with existing powers in Scotland, and part of any progress would involve getting other bodies to take responsibility and change.
The great Scottish debate has to be about more than what fiscal powers you devolve, or the ins and outs of tax competition. That kind of truncated debate shows us how far political options have narrowed.
Perhaps the great and the good of ‘civic Scotland’ can raise their ambitions above playing at being pseudo-politicians and positioning themselves in the non-debate focused on more powers for the Parliament? Maybe they could show the imagination and boldness to speak up for the Scotland and the agenda which is being ignored and left without a voice. Why not give expression to a different, better, fairer Scotland, and speak to the best of our traditions, of compassion, citizenship and respect, and challenge all of us to do the same?