Who really cares about inequality?

December 12, 2021
Category: Blog,Modern Studies

I’ve just updated the Social Inequality powerpoints. There’s audio versions on the new Higher site.

I’ve worked hard to get to grips with what this study theme is asking; the effect of inequality and the effectiveness, or otherwise, of government to do anything about it. Also, whether government should do anything about it or is it just up to individuals to sort themselves out.

I realised pretty quickly that SQA is capable of asking the wrong kind of question. 2019, for example. “Analyse the effect of inequality on a group in society.” (12)

I’m unequal, for example, to a Manchester City midfielder who probably earns about £400k a week. That doesn’t make me ill, make me want to smoke, take drugs or drink myself to death. At an existential level it may make me wish I’d stuck in at football a wee bit more in my younger days instead of becoming a teacher, but despite being unequal to these guys and any number of others, I’m pretty happy with my lot in life and I dare say the vast bulk of ‘middle Scotland’ is the same.

It’s not inequality that has a corrosive effect on a group in society, it’s poverty. That should have been the question.

There’s tons of evidence; on health, education and crime, that growing up in poverty has a pretty profound impact on a heck of a lot of people’s lives.

In my presentations, there’s the latest data on heart disease, cancer, premature mortality, drug deaths, smoking, alcohol abuse and educational under attainment.

A pretty startling conclusion is that none of this should come as any surprise.

If we elect governments who do not try to create equality of outcome, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t deliver it.

The UK Conservatives don’t believe in equality. Neither do Labour and neither does the SNP.

They may do lots of things to take people out of poverty but that’s different.

They may believe, passionately even, in equality of opportunity but that’s something completely different too.

There are small socialist parties about (the Scottish Socialists, remember them? They used to have 6 MSPs, almost as many as the Scottish Greens have now) who do believe in equality of outcome but few support these parties.

We may all like the idea of equality but few of us seem to want to vote for it.

Would we vote for the ‘Scandinavian model’ of high taxes and comprehensive welfare?

The SNP believes in ‘tackling’ inequality and it is working very hard in Government in areas such as health and education to improve health outcomes and widen access in education.

But ‘equality’ is some way off. More working class youngsters are going to university but is this at the expense of the rich or are more youngsters in general just going to university? That’s not a pedantic point. If we’re talking about equality, the gaps remain even if everyone is doing better.

The same with health. Life expectancy is improving for everyone, which is good, but life expectancy is getting even better for the more affluent. Inequalities remain.

Tony Blair famously said that he was ‘relaxed’ about some people being fantastically rich so long as outcomes for everyone were improving. He was lambasted for this but it remains the approach of all our major parties, though few would be so bold as to say it.

Voters too. The liberal left may agonise over inequalities but those with the money buy houses in the best areas and send their kids to the best schools. There would be fighting on suburban avenues if any council tried to change catchment areas.

In the meantime, we’ve still big problems among our most disadvantaged with grinding poverty, low educational attainment and poor health, including the drug death figures which have captured everyone’s attention.

The Scottish Government seems to have embraced the thinking of Sir Harry Burns, that tackling the life chances of children in the early years is the best long term solution and it is to be hoped that in the long term, this strategy will work.

In the meantime, inequalities in outcome in health and education appear to be extremely stubborn to budge.