Danny Dorling, a geographer at Sheffield University, has been behind a good deal of interesting work about Britain over the last few years. So You Think You Know about Britain? presents similar arguments to those in last year’s Injustice, about the pernicious nature of social and economic divisions in Britain today. Details of the book are here. Whereas Injustice came from an academic press and was aimed mainly at an academic readership, So You Think You Know About Britain? comes from a trade publisher and is clearly aimed at a wider audience. (The text is about 230 pages, plus 70 pages of notes). Both are evidence-based arguments about the nature of social and economic divisions within Britain today, and have similar origins and arguments to that made by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level. The proposition all three books advance is that the sorts of inequality in our society are corrosive of social harmony, and undermine the quality of life for everyone – those in the middle and upper-middle reaches of society as much as the poorest. There’s an impressive array of data to back this up, drawing heavily on Dorling’s refereed publications and well cited in the notes (which deserve a prize for being funny as well as useful). Dorling’s overall argument is best summarised in this passage from the chapter about rural-urban divides:
We are slowly Balkanizing, driven by our misconceptions about people and places: most people in rural areas are not rich farmers, and most people in inner-cities are not on benefits. Almost everyone living in Britain, in town or country, has far more common with each other than they realize … (p.182)
Dorling identifies the geographical aspects of a number of important cleavages – regarding population in general, divisions between urban and rural areas, gender imbalances, immigration and ageing. To a large degree, the book is an exercise in applied demography, the study of populations that is often a discrete discipline in many countries, which leads to a set of wider political arguments about how wealth is distributed.
It’s only in his discussion of the north-south divide that Dorling raises the sort of concerns that underpin this blog. Here Dorling argues strongly that the key cleavage is a north-south divide that has become greater in severity over the last 20 years or so, and which can be mapped very precisely. Relying on health data – but this pretty much overlaps with other data, relating to matter like access to elite universities, house prices and unemployment rates – it is, essentially, a diagonal line drawn between the Severn estuary and the Humber – or just north of Gloucester to just south of Grimsby. The implication of Dorling’s argument here amounts to an ‘outer Britain’ one: that northern England, Scotland and Wales are all largely similar to each, and very different from southern England. This coincides with my own understanding of how the UK works (though Scotland, the fourth most prosperous of the UK’s standard regions by per capita Gross Value Added, usually appears to be the most successful part of that ‘outer Britain’ – Wales and the North East of England are the least successful). It would have been interesting, though to see that assumption questioned rather more, and the extent to which there is variation within that picture discussed. Is Cornwall really that similar to prosperous parts of southern England like Sussex or Kent? Does Manchester really resemble Glasgow more than London? More detailed explanation of this, and what it means, would be valuable.
It’s a sign of the times that this sort of argument needs nowadays to be made by academics like Dorling or Wilkinson and Pickett. While books like So You Think …? or The Spirit Level rely on a huge amount of quantitative social data, essentially this results in a political argument. The data are needed to give the argument weight, because otherwise these arguments would seem idealistic or impracticable. But this was the mainstream position of the Labour right in the late 1970s (the time at which he argues, from a social point, we never had it so good). This was once the position of Roy Hattersley or Shirley Williams. Now, it seems much more marginal, even for many on what’s thought of as the Labour left. Those wondering about the disengagement of the electorate from politics might reflect on that – perhaps the narrowing of the range of political discussion itself plays a part in causing the wider public to regard politics as an elite activity, not something that directly affects their concerns.
There are two lessons to be drawn from this. One is about the nature of the ‘British problem’. In fact, there are an awful lot of things that all parts of the UK have in common, and the biggest dividing line is one that runs through the middle of England. It’s not one that divides Scotland or Wales from England, but rather that distinguishes ‘outer Britain’ from the prosperous and expanding south-eastern corner. Policy makers would have done well to understand it’s not Scotland or Wales that are ‘odd’, but greater Greater London. With the rescaling of politics after devolution, and for all the flaws in the institutional design of devolution, it’s the English (especially the northern and western English) whose political interests are apt to get overlooked. Birmingham must be the least politically significant city with a population over a million in the developed world.
The second lesson is about institutions. If someone really wanted to redress the problems Dorling identifies, they’d either need to rewrite the constitution or use it very cleverly indeed. Many policy levers to tackle problems he identifies – health and educational inequalities being top of the list, with some labour market factors following a little behind – are in the hands of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. (A few are in the hands of the Mayor of London.) There is no longer one government that could tackle them, even if it had the political will. It could take on some aspects of them, and encourage other governments to tackle others, but the sort of centralised government with authority to act that could have responded to this book if it had appeared before 1999 no longer exists. Until people on the left start to incorporate that sort of constitutional framework into their thinking, they’re going to find it very hard to deliver on their aspirations even if they get elected.