The Fourth Most Unequal Country in the Developed World

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, March 17th 2012

One of the most important influences shaping the coming debate on the future of Scotland will be the nature of Britain.

While various anti-independence campaigners interrogate every aspect of the Scottish Government’s case, they overall fail to deal with the reality of modern day Britain. The actions and reputation of the British government matter, along with the condition of the state, society, economy and culture.

We have travelled a long way from the 1970s when John P. Mackintosh summarised the Scottish Nationalist case as being centred on forcing people to make what he regarded as an unnecessary choice between being Scottish and British.

Then only a decade ago Andrew Wilson got into trouble with parts of the SNP for suggesting that British culture and identity could continue in an independent Scotland. Nowadays it would seem that debate has moved on.

What hasn’t moved on is the defence of Britain which, in many respects, has become more centred on protecting a kind of mirage or apparition which doesn’t exist. Thus while pro-independence forces are meant to answer every conceivable (and inconceivable) scenario, supporters of the UK don’t feel the need to address any of the plausible futures it could face. Examples range from what happens if the UK leaves the EU to support for a US-Israeli attack on Iran, both completely conceivable.

This week I spoke at a Fabian Society-Compass event on Scottish independence in London, along with Labour MPs, Anas Sarwar, Gemma Doyle and Jon Cruddas. Sarwar and Doyle repeatedly painted a picture of a ‘Fantasy Island Britain’, a place of successful redistribution, progressive politics and doing good around the world. They didn’t deal with the rather different reality.

As many people know the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the rich world according to Danny Dorling. Moreover, according to Dorling on existing trends the UK is set to surpass Singapore, the USA and Portugal and become the most unequal country in the entire developed world. That is a bit removed from the union that many Labour politicians and others defend.

London, that ‘world city’ of wealth, talent and cosmopolitanism, is the most unequal city in the developed world. According to Dorling in ‘Fair Play: A Daniel Dorling Reader on Social Justice’, the richest tenth of adults have 273 times the wealth of the poorest tenth in the city (compared to 96:1 across England). A tenth of Londoners have wealth of £933,563 or more compared to the lower tenth who have an average of £3,420. London is shockingly a more unequal city than many places in emerging and developing countries, from Brazil and Mexico to South Africa.

The uneven economic development of the UK, and concentration of so much wealth and power around London and the South East, distorts much of the UK’s public life. It influences and shapes many of the political, media and business perceptions about what is good for the entire UK. It leads to geographic polarisation and super-concentration by Conservatives and Labour on certain sectors of the population as opinion worth courting and listening to.

The whole controversy about whether Scotland is slightly subsidised by the rest of the UK or in fact subsidises it, misses the point that Scotland is the third richest ‘region’ in the UK, after London and the South East. If we factor in a portion of oil and gas on official figures, Scotland is the second richest ‘region’ after London.

What this shows is the over-concentration of power, status and influence in a narrow, unrepresentative slither of Britain who have increasingly over the last few decades become advocates for a version of the UK as an open economy in the interests of the global elite, mobile capital and labour and corporate interests.

A large part of Scotland may not like this, but we should also spare a thought for the plight of the North of England, the North West, Yorkshire and indeed all the English regions outwith the South East and London. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have some degree of political leverage vis-a-via the centre. The English regions beyond the South have much less political clout and are reduced in the increasingly centralised post-regional development England to being the equivalent of a ‘flyover Britain’.

The British state is, if not broken, badly damaged and corroded. The old pillars of the British establishment – church, banking, media moguls and politicians – have crumbled one by one leaving an unrestrained crony capitalism which isn’t about good business or genuine wealth creation but monopoly, oligopoly and corporate self-interest.

What greater indicator is there of this than the Andrew Lansley English health bill going through the UK Houses of Parliament? Yet again we await a House of Lords vote to try and save the people from a grotesque, unwanted reform (cue: Scots memories of the poll tax). This from an upper house where 217 peers, 28 percent, of the entire chamber have financial links to private health providers, while in the last decade the Conservative Party has received 333 donations worth £8.3 million from private health companies.

This is the Britain that anti-independence supporters need to explain, defend or tell us how they are going to change in ways they haven’t managed already. Labour politicians and Lib Dem politicians north of the border seem to have fallen silent on being Westminster reformers, constitutional radicals and decentralists.

When was the last time any Lib Dem politician uttered something convincing about the democratic deficit which plagues the UK? Henry McLeish is, as he often finds himself, a lone Scottish Labour voice slamming Westminster ‘exceptionalism, sovereignty and insensitivity’ towards devolution.

It is not a sensible debate if the pro-union forces don’t engage with the reality of Britain. We have to acknowledge that the main drivers of the Scottish debate aren’t ‘Braveheart’ nationalism or a simplistic ‘Trainspotting’ version of Scots victimhood, but the failure of British governments, Labour and Tory, and their tearing up of the post-war social contract. That and a rising Scottish belief that we can do things better and differently.

This has led to a crisis of trust in British government north of the border, and raises questions of legitimacy. The Scottish debate is in effect about whether we have the wit and wisdom to make our own social contract. It is time pro-independence, pro-union and the different strengths of devo opinion addressed this fundamental fact.