Inequality, now and then

The last time that people in Britain – some of them, at any rate – got seriously exercised about ‘inequality’, as opposed to simple ‘poverty’, was a hundred years ago. The key work then – the rough equivalent of Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (2010) and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality (2012) today – was Leo Chiozza Money’s Riches and Poverty (1905), which purported to show that 87% of private property in Britain was owned by 2.25% of the population, with the remainder – nearly 40 million people – having to make do with 13% of the national wealth. That’s much in line with what is claimed today. For Edwardian socialists the wealth gap will have come as no surprise. Chiozza Money’s great contribution, however, was to quantify it. And he wasn’t a socialist, but a passionate free trader, and a Liberal MP.

That greater equality could be espoused by economic Liberals in the 1900s may have had something to do with the fact that inequality, at least to this extent, wasn’t seen as a necessary concomitant of the free market. One of the great gurus of market economics, John Stuart Mill, actually believed that it would have the opposite effect, ironing out the inequalities which he and his kind tended to associate with feudal privilege. If that didn’t happen eventually, he wrote in the second edition of his Principles of Political Economy (1848), he for one would favour socialism. He was as good as his word, declaring his conversion (privately) in 1871. (Not many people know that.) It was this supposed convergence between free marketism and broad social equality that enabled most nineteenth century Liberals to embrace political as well as economic liberalism. Today of course the two are opposites. The final separation took place during the ‘Great Reaction’ of the 1980s, and Thatcher’s ideology of ‘the free economy in a strong’ that is, illiberal, ‘state’. Capitalists now usually regard inequality as a positive good: ‘incentives’, ‘trickle down’, and all that.

But the tensions between that and the general good were already beginning to be discerned in the 1900s. The British economy was declining, relative to others, and becoming more and more dependent on banking, finance and cheap colonial markets to shore it up. Living standards for the mass of people were no longer rising, as in free market logic they were supposed to. Only the very rich were gaining, sometimes through obvious corruption – it was a great age for financial scandals – and, what was widely considered to be more shocking, flaunting their wealth in the faces of the poor. Mr Toad in The Wind and the Willows (1908) is a personification (or toadification) of this; bringing nemesis in the shape of the takeover of his mansion by the ‘Wild Wooders’ (stoats and weasels), who are obviously meant to represent the working classes. (Kenneth Graham was a banker in his former life.) Interestingly, Toad and his friends manage to win Toad Hall back by digging a tunnel beneath it and surprising the proles; which could be seen to represent the subterranean MI5, which was formally set up just afterwards, and used against the Wild Wooders in real life.

The tunnellers however didn’t have it entirely their own way in early twentieth century Britain. The working classes had their trade unions, growing in economic and political power, with the set-backs (like the Taff Vale judgment) soon set right again; and (since 1900) their ‘Labour Representation Committee’ in Parliament. The former were able to put pressure on governments with serious industrial strikes; the latter (as the Labour Party) formed two minority governments in the inter-war years, and then three majority ones after World War II which – with the support of the more cuddly of the Conservatives – pushed the ‘equality’ agenda forward some way. Workers’ rights and social democracy were two banners behind which (relative) egalitarians could broadly unite.

These of course are what is missing today. The unions were emasculated under the Great Reaction; socialism was demoralized by perceived failure; the working classes were marginalized with the decline of heavy industry, and increasingly demonized (according to Owen Jones, Chavs, 2011) as stoats and weasels. Chiozza Money’s Liberal audience had been shocked and frightened by the wave of galloping inequality he revealed. Stiglitz’s and Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s audiences may be equally shocked by their revelations of this second, more dramatic wave, but have less reason to be frightened. That’s the difference between then and now.

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