News and Comment

Changing Times, with Professor Richard Wilkinson

Friday 24 May 2013


This weeks Changing Times comes from Professor Richard Wilkinson, researcher into social inequalities and, along with his partner Professor Kate Pickett, co-author of the seminal book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better.

If you compare today’s society and the society into which you were born: what’s most strikingly different, and what’s most surprisingly similar?

I want to give answers here that are relative to inequality issues.

I was born in 1943 when the Second World War was still going on. There was a dramatic narrowing of income differences during the war: progressive taxation, rationing to prevent greater inequality in foodstuffs and so on. Remarkably in the war civilian life expectancy increased. In fact the decade that included the First World War and the decades that included the Second World War contain the fastest improvements in life expectancy of any decades in the 20th century. It really is bizarre; both wars see a huge increase in equality, basically because the government wanted people to feel the burden of war was equally shared. This was largely due to things like rationing, more progressive taxation, taxes on luxuries and subsidies on necessities.

Given difficult choices have to be made, what one public service or source of support do you think we should prioritise most highly, and why?

I think the most important thing that government’s do is income maintenance, which is ideally supported by progressive taxation.Sadly the incremental tax system in this country is no longer progressive. So I would prioritise income maintenance, more progressive taxation and give a particular attention to child poverty.

If you could choose one person to be the Prime Minister’s adviser, who would that person be, and why?

This is rather awkward because I shared my notes with Kate [Professor Kate Pickett, previous Changing Times contributor and partner of Richard Wilkinson] before she’d answered and I had noted that she’d  put me down and I don’t want it to appear like a tit-for-tat.

I think it is very important to raise the share in the economy of cooperatives and employee-owned businesses that have more democratic structures and the person I think of as knowing most about that is a man called David Erdal.

David not only transferred a large family business – a paper mill in Scotland – to employee ownership, but he then became director of a charity that helps companies that are transitioning to an employee-owned model.

I think it is really important to increase the size of the employee-owned sector within the economy. Partly because these companies are more democratic and have much smaller income differences within them, but also because people say that employee buyouts turn a company from being a piece of property into a community.

We’ve lost community in residential neighbourhoods and now it is at work that we have most to do with each other. But too often it is at work that we are also most divided by hierarchy. So I think things like employee-owned companies, mutuals and cooperatives, overcome some of those problems.

They’re also better ethically. If you look at who wins the environmental awards and things like that it’s very often these type of organisations.

Public services rely on voluntary support more than ever: is this to be welcomed?

No I think it’s not. While volunteering is something to be welcomed generally, I think it’s appalling that public services increasingly have to rely on volunteers in their day-to-day operations. The voluntary sector used to be seen as the sector that initiated new forms of service which later became publicly provided. They had an initiating role that they are now less likely to fulfil.

It’s the opposite of the Big Society idea that David Cameron tried to sell himself on. We’ve got a smaller civil society now and one under enormous pressure. There are so many charities that are incredibly strapped for cash at the moment because a lot of their money used to come from public sources, which are no longer available.

To be pushed back into a situation where we are relying on the voluntary sector for our public services I think is extremely regressive.

In the best case scenario, what will public services be like by 2023? What about the worst case scenario?

I think that we are going through a sea change in politics at the moment, particularly around the growing concern for inequality.

I suppose this really started with the financial crash when people began to see that bankers and the like, with their huge salaries and bonuses, were not so brilliant after all. Things like the Occupy movement, MP’s expenses, the knowledge of tax avoidance and how little tax some rich individuals and corporations pay, helped the public to become much more aware of the scale of inequality in society. I don’t think that these things are going to fall of the political agenda unless something is done about them.

I hope that this concern with inequality continues to grow and that we’ll start to move towards a different kind of society.

In my best scenario this would be a society with greater public intervention, a narrowing of income differences and I suppose, a narrowing of need for public services. I think the problem of greater inequality is that it causes a greater need for public services at the very time there is typically less support for them.

The worst scenario of course is that I am wrong about the continued growth of concern for inequality and we will really end up in a real mess. Without political intervention, present trends suggest increasing inequality and that will lead to an increasing need for public services. But I think in very unequal societies people also feel that they have to increasingly look after and fend for themselves, and that means less support for public services. So the worst scenario is increased need and lower support.

However, I am personally optimistic and I feel the best case scenario is more likely. Everyday it seems to me that there is increasing evidence of inequality issues getting more and more attention in the media.

Previous Changing Times contributors

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA.

Professor Kate Pickett, epidemiologist and author

Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive of the LGA

Professor Chris Drinkwater, President of the NHS Alliance

Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of the social enterprise Turning Point