Scarcely a day passes, it seems, without another book landing with a thud on my desk that bemoans the rise of inequality. On this side of the Atlantic we have The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Injustice by Daniel Dorling, while in America we have Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.
I’m coming round to the view that these intellectual heavyweights have got it back to front and the really significant social trend of our era is the triumph of equality. So it was refreshing to dip into A Classless Society, the third volume of Alwyn Turner’s history of Britain since the 1970s. This time, his subject is the 1990s and his thesis is that the massive increase in income inequality that characterised that decade went hand-in-hand with a concurrent increase in social equality.
Take mass immigration. Between 1991 and 1999, net immigration averaged 104,000 a year and in lots of ways that contributed to rising inequality. Plentiful supplies of cheap labour helped fuel the economic boom that began in the autumn of 1992 and ended with the credit crunch of 2007 — a boom that resulted in the gap between the highest and lowest earners growing ever wider. The increasing number of new arrivals as a percentage of the population also undermined the social cohesion that anchored the welfare state and, by extension, the redistributive taxation associated with Old Labour, a point made by David Goodhart in The British Dream.
Yet, at the same time, the multi-ethnic character of modern Britain resulted in a steep decline in racial inequality. Britain’s indigenous African-Caribbean population, particularly the men, may not have shared much in Britain’s prosperity during the 1990s, but other ethnic groups did. More importantly, it was the decade in which any manifestation of racial prejudice became taboo. In London, which has the highest density of foreign-born residents in the UK, Ken Livingstone launched a successful mayoral bid by appealing to a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups.
This same double helix — one strand consisting of growing economic inequality, the other of increasing social equality — was visible in the cultural sphere as well. I got together with a group of Oxford graduates and launched a magazine in 1991 called The Modern Review in which intellectuals wrote long, scholarly essays on subjects like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Madonna. We called it ‘low culture for highbrows’ and were widely perceived to be endorsing the view that pop culture was every bit as valuable as the highbrow stuff we’d been taught to revere at university.
In politics, the old distinction between toffs and Trots fell by the wayside and, from a social point of view, the leading lights of the two main parties became indistinguishable. Whether educated at a secondary modern like John Major, or a famous public school like Tony Blair, all politicians aspired to the same ‘classless’ ideal. Rather than the old music-hall stereotypes, socialists and Tories alike aspired to resemble chat show hosts — relaxed, friendly, bland.
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the long march of equality, both in the 1990s and beyond, was the shifting balance of power between the sexes. The decade began with Neil Lyndon writing a controversial essay for the Sunday Times Magazine in which he took on the doctrine of feminism, claiming its casual, unthinking demonisation of masculinity was having a damaging psychological effect on the next generation of men. As if to prove his point, he was rounded on by almost every prominent female journalist in the country who, as one, claimed his ‘warped’ view of women was the result of his having a small penis. His career never recovered.
I enjoyed Alwyn Turner’s book a great deal but I don’t think he’s quite done the subject justice. The book I really want to read will be about the all-conquering ascendancy of egalitarianism in the postwar period. Politically, it may have been defeated, as one European country after another has embraced free market capitalism and its attendant income inequality. But this high-profile failure has masked its success in almost every other sphere of our lives. To all intents and purposes, Britain is now a socialist utopia. The rich can make believe they’re different from you and me by engaging in ever more garish displays of conspicuous consumption. But in reality we’re all the same.