Where next for society?

We now live in a society in which the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position, as individuals, within our existing society. That can be traced back to the 1970s and Thatcher.

What Britain lacks is a popular movement capable of inspiring people through a vision of how to make society a substantially better place to live for the vast majority of people.

“Without that vision politics will rarely provoke more than a yawn.”

The context here is that rich counties have come to the end of what higher material living standards can offer, and according to Wilkinson and Pickett we are the first generation to have to find other ways of improving the real quality of living. The evidence, they say, points towards greater equality.

However British politics has failed to engage people in a meaningful rhetoric around equality and fairness, and even where these movements exist in British politics, not enough has been done to convince enough people that greater equality is the way forward.

Research in Britain has shown that many people have a strong personal belief in greater equality and fairness but these values “have remained private intuitions which they fear others do not share.”

What’s more is that even people who initially reject appeals for greater fairness and equality (both for those at the bottom and top of society) are in favour of a new vision for improving the quality of everyone’s lives when presented with a story of equality based in evidence.

This is why we need a fairer society if we are to revitalise civic society and boost our economy where everyone benefits, whether that’s through housing, employment, health, or education. Put simply, we need to do more than throw cash at something to deliver improvements.

Whatever the strength of our economy, societies are “social failures” given the level of inequality that still exists in our society despite major improvements in the material standard of living.

One author called the gap between the poor and rich the “moral horror story of our time.”

Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar have shown that the gap between the rich and poor and the enormous disparity in children’s home backgrounds, including the social and cultural capital that they bring to the “educational table” is fundemental in determining the attainment of pupils.

“The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Examples can include education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.”

“Social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.”

In 2007 a UK nationwide survey found that by the age of 3 children from disadvantaged backgrounds were educationally up to a year behind children from more privileged homes (London Institute for Education).

Additionally, Alan Milburn, a former Labour UK cabinet minister, recently published a report showing that pupils eligible for free school meals in England are 50% more likely to obtain five good GCSEs than their counterparts in Wales.

Fundamentally, a fairer and more equal society will do more for educational attainment than simply improving the material standard of living. Increasing education spending alone will not deliver improvements in attainment. Increasing education spending in itself will not enable education as the great  societal leveller that it should be. Improving the material standard of living will not, in itself, improve social and cultural capital, a key part in delivering educational attainment for children and young people.

Children’s start in life is also incredibly important in underlining their development and their (perceived) success in later life.

Early attachment theory states that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. Attachment theory explains how much the parents’ relationship with the child influences development.

This has an impact on a child’s start in life, but also the equality in ensuring fairness for both parents and the impact on the household. As attachment theory explains, poor attachment at an early stage in a child’s life can have a detrimental impact on the rest of their childhood and adult life, including educational attainment.

Which is why we cannot continue to allow governments to pit the poor against the rich in creating a stronger economy in a fairer society.

In the past arguments about inequality have centred on the privations of the poor and on what is fair, where reducing inequality depended on scaring the better off into “adopting a more altruistic attitude to the poor”. This has generated a fundemental distrust which contributes to the broken society in which we live.

Greater equality is not, and should not be about lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.

Subramanian and Kawachi (2006) said that “inequality acts like a pollutant spread throughout society.” Research shows that the more unequal a society (the steeper the socio-economic gradient) the worse everybody performes in education, not only those children with less well-educated parents. The UK and USA have worse average literacy scores on national levels of attainment because of the steepness (meaning less equal) of the social gradient

“Greater equality is the gateway to a society improving the quality of life for all of us and an essential step in the development of a sustainable economic system.”

We don’t just need a fairer society for the poor, we need a fairer society for all so everyone can succeed, where everyone is given the best start in life, where everyone is supported in succeeding. By vilifying the rich we create distrust in our society to the point where a broken society is self created. We need to challenge the obscenities of wealth and power, and those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden, but that’s different to creating an enemy.

Even in 2014 improvements in the material standard of living isn’t going to make vast improvements to society – we need a look at community life, mental health, social relations, education, trust, equality and sustainability. How people interact, people’s perceptions of others, and how groups within our society interact is just as important, if not more, than finance. Government can no longer only use improvements in the material standard of living as a means of greatly improving the quality of living in modern Britain.

In Britain we have been rightly committed to narrowing the health gap between the rich and the poor, but we’ve seen little change. The reason for this is because the policy has been centred on breaking the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces, which is only part of the problem.

Wilkinson and Pickett explain the flaw in this policy perfectly.

They said that these policies are grounded in the dividing belief that the poor need to be taught to be more sensible (drugs, protected sex, exercise and alcohol consumption etc) with the unstated hope that people can carry on in the same circumstances, making no real improvement to their standard of living.

We should be rejecting an ‘artificial fairness’ to improve social mobility and the standard of living in Britain. A fairness that generates mistrust between large swathes of our society. A fairness that talks down the poor through playing big government, clamping down on fairness and freedom in the name of equality which isn’t truly equal.

We need to capture and provide a narrative for the collective belief that society could be different through greater equality, and interweave a strong economic narrative.


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