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Britain’s Imperial Hangover

In British corridors of power the legacy of empire still lingers. The UK is no longer the global player it pretends to be, but nor is it introspective enough to truly look after its own citizens. This means the disparity between rich and poor gets greater year on year but instead of addressing the root causes the political class scapegoat the vulnerable.

Renegade Inc. went to Oxford to talk to Professor Danny Dorling, joint author of more than a dozen books on issues related to social inequalities in Britain and several hundred journal papers.

In his latest book, ‘Peak Inequality’, professor Dorling paints a realistic but bleak picture of the way the British view themselves, the cornerstone of which is the housing market, the failing out of control banking system and the inequality gap. Dorling argues that the British imperial mindset is preventing the UK from becoming a progressive, social democracy in a rapidly evolving multipolar world.

Perception versus reality

Professor Dorling began the discussion by outlining two visions of modern Britain that encapsulate the difference between public perception and reality:

“What the British think about the UK is that this is a very successful country, it’s a country that’s got the second highest number of medals in the Olympics, it’s a country that’s very proud of itself, sings triumphant songs, it has a football team that kind of occasionally does all right, whatever the fifth/sixth largest economy in the world – that kind of thing.”

The gap between what people are told about the country and their emotional attachment to it, “is very wide”, argues Dorling:

“Britain is a country that’s on the way down. It’s sliding down the ranks faster than any other European country by a number of measures”, he says, adding, “You can measure it by the size of the economy because the pounds dropping. You can go from 5 to 6 to 7 largest in the world and we know what the international statistics will say next year and the year after because the exchange rate numbers are already in. Or you can measure it by something like life expectancy which since 2014 has been falling and it’s falling nowhere else in Europe. Or you can measure it by the depth of poverty and the extent of poverty and you know for Western European country there’s nothing else like this.”

The gap between reality and perception has, as Dorling attests, been sustained by a process of rapid social change with disastrous consequences:

“We’ve suddenly gone from…around about 7 percent to 6 percent of families with children privately renting – who were mostly doing that before 2010 as temporary backstop to getting a mortgage – to over a quarter of all families with kids in the country having to have a private landlord, having no security of tenure nor been able to keep their children in the same school if the landlord wants the house which they want an average every 3 years in London.

Societal breakdown

As Dorling reiterates, it’s the speed of change over the last 10/15 years coupled with a failing media averse to reporting accurately the nature of the changes described, that’s leading to societal breakdown.

As the professor notes, central to the collapse in the social structure of society has been the political establishments continued emphasis on their promotion of the concept, ‘property owning democracy’. It’s a concept that’s not only fatally flawed, the chances of owning property diminish with age. “The statistics are truly amazing”, says Dorling. “The older you now get in Britain…your chances of getting a mortgage actually fall.”

Professor Dorling’s depiction of Britain as a fractured and dysfunctional society is reflected in the housing market:

“You just have to look around and you see you couldn’t possibly get an average size house in most of the southeast for most people… And then when we get the good news…that house prices are falling in London. House prices are now falling in Oxford. For the first time in my life you can go to the estate agent up near Cowley and you can see £10,0il00 off, £20,000 off everything in the window. When that happens people go, “Oh no! It could crash.” which… and what happens then? And our banks are underwritten on the value of the property so it’s an incredible mess.”.

Cognitive dissonance

Dorling argues that this logic is predicated on a form of collective cognitive dissonance. For example, a booming housing market that is widely regarded as being a positive thing is, in reality, bad for us. Conversely, the things people largely perceive as being bad for them, like immigration, is an indication of something positive.

“You’ve got to ask,” says Dorling, “out of 30 odd countries in Europe how did this particularly large country get into a situation where it complained about getting large numbers of highly skilled, highly fit people coming over here to do work at a low price – which we haven’t even educated – and only coming in number to areas where people like them and voted remain. And at the same time as they made the house prices more and more expensive with policies like “Help to Buy” – which were designed to increase house prices –  they did not realize that it was simply creating a cliff edge.”

Imperial illusions

In terms of helping to sustain high income inequalities, “there’s always one country that gets it most wrong…. It happens to be us this time”, argues Dorling. The clue as to the reason why the UK got it so wrong, emanates from the disastrous legacy of empire premised on the perpetuation of illusions. The principal of these illusions are the empires benign ‘civilizing’ nature.

Professor Dorling explains:

“Britain had the world’s largest empire just a century ago and we’re still in the hangover from that. And because we ran an empire in a way where we told ourselves that we ran it for the good of the world, that the people that we controlled were lucky to have us, that we civilized them….We told ourselves all these things.

“When the empire was nearing approaching its height a man published a book called ‘The Origin of Species’ and so at the same time as the British Empire was forming we learned that we may not simply be put down on here by God but were animals and we learned about ideas like survival of the fittest and so on.”

Framing societal hierarchies around biological imperatives helps justify certain ideological and political aims predicated on empire. This explains how it came to be that an economist, Herbert Spencer, first coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Maintaining the world’s largest ever empire required eugenic ideas about superiority to help sustain it. And so, as professor Dorling acknowledged:

“People 100 years ago wrote about the British race. William Beveridge told the middle class to have four children for the good of the race. For the good of the worlds people – middle class not working class – the British middle class should have four children and they could spread them around the world to control them. That’s our legacy. “

Dorling continued:

“We don’t teach much about empire now. What we teach is that we invented a spinning jenny. We don’t teach about where the cotton came from for that spinning jenny or who we made buy the material that we wove from that. So we haven’t told ourselves our own family’s story about ourselves. And then when the last colonies go – most of them in the 1970s in Africa but finally Hong Kong in 1997 – and the captive markets go and the advantage that we had went and when for the first time in 200 years, we actually have to do something useful ourselves it’s a shock to find out that what we’re doing isn’t that useful. And then we had a little stay of execution because we released our banks from much control in 1986 and we had a little boom in the banking industry and that kind of kept us going. But now faith in our banks has gone and they haven’t got any passport.”

The legacy of empire is also prevalent in relation to Brexit.

Dorling explains:

“They [UK banks], can’t operate on the mainland as of the 29th March. We’re in a peculiarly bad situation and I think it’s explainable or understandable from the empire legacy that we’ve had about our thinking.”

Because the legacy of empire is not taught in schools, means that we aren’t able to properly diagnose what’s going wrong and are therefore unable to address it. What remains are myths, fables, anthems and songs:

“People must laugh”, posits Dorling. “…You end up coming round to a man who invented a particular kind of vacuum cleaner which only employed a few dozen people in an obscure small town in the west country of England or you talk about, you know, a man who lives on a Caribbean island who’s managed to buy the franchise in a clapped out old Victorian train system going up to the north west.”

Dorling adds prosaicly:

“I think it’s remarkable how kind other people in Europe have been about how we behave and what we’re doing. And I think it shows a measure of their understanding of history, that they realise that we’re in a deep deep problem and simply mocking us for our stupidity is not going to help. But one problem is because they don’t mock us for our stupidity and say, “Why don’t you learn some history properly? Why don’t you actually learn economics the way that much of the rest of the world understands economics works?” because they don’t do that…”

And yet, the ruling, privately-educated class continue, unashamedly, to peddle their myths regardless, seemingly unaware of the damage they cause. The housing issue – in which banks unleashed from regulatory constraints – flog each other debt-based assets that already exist, is a cornerstone of the problem outlined.

Dorling elaborates:

“We are at an incredible moment. Martin Sorrell – who is the head of the largest advertising agency and the highest paid person before him – not many months ago was required to leave – put it that way. Housing boss, Jeff Fairburn, on a clip that has gone viral, was asked about his salary and he said to the person who’d asked, a reporter, ‘I think it’s very unfortunate you asked that question.'”

Watch Persimmon CEO, Jeff Fairburn, walk off camera during a BBC interview after being asked about his £75m bonus.

Dorling adds:

“You know, we’re living in the most remarkable time….I’ve been adding up numbers, you know for 30 years….More babies died last year than the year before and more babies died a year before than the year before that….Nowhere else in Europe are more babies dying. Last winter 130,000 children in B&B accommodation. Higher than any other winter. So the question is, you know, this winter 140/150/160 thousand? What’s It going to be? The number of homeless people dying on the streets per year. Rate increases eightfold in four years. This is what a disaster looks like.”

Peak inequality

Indicative of a city in the throes of what Dorling terms ‘peak inequality’ is London, location of the Grenfell Tower tragedy where the stark contrast between the haves and have nots was laid bare.

The Grenfell disaster is stark reminder of the inequality we live in.

How did we get there?

For Dorling, this can be explained by “the huge gap between people and wages and benefit gap – increasing relentlessly from around about 1977 onwards with almost no halt.”

Dorling continues:

“Around about 1990 equalities appeared to increase amongst the bottom 90% but the top 10% still carried on getting more. And then round about… 2012 I think, the rest of the top 10% stopped getting more but the 1% carried on getting more – because we ran out of money. Around about 2015 most of the 1% saw their wages drop – particularly after Brexit because you don’t need to pay bankers more to keep them in Britain when you’re trying to get them to move to Dublin and Paris and Frankfurt – and that’s how we did it. It went on and on and on. You can’t see on these graphs that I draw New Labour being elected. It made no difference to the inequality rise. It’s an incredible situation to end in.”

Professor Dorling notes that a major cause of peak inequality has been “the loss of well-paid industrial jobs that on average were paying twice the real wage of a cleaning job – what’s called unskilled jobs, although they’re often very skilled….

Once you reduce the top tax rate to 40/45%”, says Dorling, “the incentive of greedy people to try and get more – because they can keep most of it – is really high.”

Also, there has been an “emphasis on talent and skill so we began to describe some jobs as being very very talented when we just pay people more. So it’s creating these myths of super talent, so somebody who provides 400 meals for children within half an hour including halal and vegetarian and makes it all hot. That’s an unskilled job. Whereas somebody who sits at a trading desk pressing some buttons that they’ve been taught to and saying the right words and dressing up in the right way, they’re brilliant and they’re worth £300/£400 million a year.”

In terms of how this mass of inequality – peak inequality – has impacted on individual potential, Dorling notes that “about 40 percent of the income is taken by the top 10 percent … It’s a society which has not been this divided for getting on for a century…It means that we do not understand each other and people…The people at the top think they absolutely have to have the things they have….This is one reason why people at the very top have funded a Brexit campaign because they see it as a way of getting Britain offshore and not being controlled by taxation of Europeans and not being made to behave in a civilized way where you respect each other that is common on the mainland.”

Dorling continues:

The only way you can disguise inequality as a problem – as it grows bigger and bigger and bigger – is you’ve got to give people another enemy to look at…. And the most convenient enemy we’ve had has been immigrants.

“Immigrants have been used – right through from the 1970s onwards – as the reason your schools are not good. They are not good because the immigrants are using them. The reason you can’t get a house is because the immigrants are getting all the houses. The reason your job pays lowly is, some immigrant has got that better job that you would have. And it’s an incredibly convenient myth to sell. The only problem is if 52 percent of people vote leave you suddenly can’t use that argument anymore. 100,000 people don’t turn up and things don’t get better. And if you’ve been told for 30 years if they didn’t come things will get better and they stop coming and things don’t get better. Now tabloid newspapers will blame the immigrants for not coming. It’s still an immigrant problem.”

What are the tabloids likely to run with next?

Dorling’s answer is as depressing as it gets:

“Traitors, enemies of the people, those who don’t believe, who are not patriotic, who are not British enough, cynics, hippies, socialists, that’s the next … We’re heading for an incredibly ugly period because the people who like inequality – who think some people should have much more than others – truly believe that is the right way and they’re willing to do anything to protect what they think is important.”

This trend is likely to continue if the political will is not there to tackle the problem of inequality. This is because, as Dorling makes clear, inequality helps reinforce the economic ‘trickle down’ myth.

It does take long for the logic of that argument to filter down to justifying eugenics. Dorling recalled the views of right-wing writer, Toby Young:

“Toby Young was one of eleven or twelve authors of a paper published a few months ago which said that the children who were in selective private and grammar schools in Britain have genes which mean they’re cleverer and they should be in those schools. And it came out in the Times that the same kind of study is now suggesting that the children who get to our university are from the alpha stream genes. There’s a belief that people got their millions because they had cleverer genes. Their children will inherit their clever genes but because their children have got clever genes they need to send them to a school that may cost £40,000 or £50,000 a year because it’s only fair to nurture those clever genes in their children and most people are lazy and feckless and need to be controlled and are not to be trusted. And that belief is a common belief of people with a lot of money at the top of society and it helps them get through the day.”

New ways of thinking

Dorling argues that we need a whole new way of thinking – a renaissance – in order to reverse these pernicious messages:

“There are lots of people doing it”, says Dorling. “The most effective group – absolutely fascinating since the last two years since Brexit – are black British journalists. It is stunning to see how often journalists who are not white writing in – often not tabloid papers – are saying, “This is a problem because you’re a colonial country. This isn’t right.” And that is the most concentrated set of thinking I’ve seen outside of academia. I mean in academia we kind of have, you know, young academics who kind of… but they use such complicated language the message doesn’t get out.”

Dorling sees signs of hope for the future:

“I see a diminishing and small group of young people who believe in inequality is good and they are particularly special. You look at times when things got better before. The last time inequality peaked was 1913. History shows that ruling class incompetence of the kind described tends to usher in change among the young generation. Brexit is a very small version of that. These things don’t happen by accident and can only be solved collectively…. Now, we had the largest, fastest swing in recorded polling history in May and June of 2017. Maybe I look for this. I am a glass half full person. But I also measure things and I can tell you it’s the biggest swing then 1945 because 1945 occurred over 10 years, not just two.”

For Dorling, this is the undercurrent that gives him hope, adding that “the effort it takes to be ridiculously stupid, cannot be sustained forever. If you are trying to reduce the income and wealth for the best of people in Britain in a way you couldn’t go about it better than we’re doing now. The price of luxury apartments in London is really tumbling. Why would an overseas investor buy a flat for 3 or 4 million in London when the pound’s dropping, Brexit is occurring and there’s a chance of an election of a government who will bang on a property tax that will make your situation really painful.”

Dorling concludes:

“The opportunity exists at the moment to move more in the right direction and to set the pace…In that way, year after year, the Conservative Party – or what’s left of the Conservative party – moves a little bit to the left. They already have been. They’ve increased the taxes on landlords, they’ve got rid of the caps on housing for local authorities, they’ve done things that you’d never imagine them doing. Labour slowly moves more and more to the left to eventually end up where a normal, social democratic party in Europe might be.”

What is the rate of speed at which change is likely to occur?

“We will be faster than the 1960s, in terms of social morals changing and the kind of respect you used to have for the upper class being reduced and that’s just to become an average European country in terms of how we treat one another”, says Dorling.

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