Status anxiety

Britain is now a socialist utopia

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

Scarcely a day passes, it seems, without another book landing with a thud on my desk that bemoans the rise of inequality. On this side of the Atlantic we have The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Injustice by Daniel Dorling, while in America we have Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.

I’m coming round to the view that these intellectual heavyweights have got it back to front and the really significant social trend of our era is the triumph of equality. So it was refreshing to dip into A Classless Society, the third volume of Alwyn Turner’s history of Britain since the 1970s. This time, his subject is the 1990s and his thesis is that the massive increase in income inequality that characterised that decade went hand-in-hand with a concurrent increase in social equality.

Take mass immigration. Between 1991 and 1999, net immigration averaged 104,000 a year and in lots of ways that contributed to rising inequality. Plentiful supplies of cheap labour helped fuel the economic boom that began in the autumn of 1992 and ended with the credit crunch of 2007 — a boom that resulted in the gap between the highest and lowest earners growing ever wider. The increasing number of new arrivals as a percentage of the population also undermined the social cohesion that anchored the welfare state and, by extension, the redistributive taxation associated with Old Labour, a point made by David Goodhart in The British Dream.


Yet, at the same time, the multi-ethnic character of modern Britain resulted in a steep decline in racial inequality. Britain’s indigenous African-Caribbean population, particularly the men, may not have shared much in Britain’s prosperity during the 1990s, but other ethnic groups did. More importantly, it was the decade in which any manifestation of racial prejudice became taboo. In London, which has the highest density of foreign-born residents in the UK, Ken Livingstone launched a successful mayoral bid by appealing to a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups.

This same double helix — one strand consisting of growing economic inequality, the other of increasing social equality — was visible in the cultural sphere as well. I got together with a group of Oxford graduates and launched a magazine in 1991 called The Modern Review in which intellectuals wrote long, scholarly essays on subjects like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Madonna. We called it ‘low culture for highbrows’ and were widely perceived to be endorsing the view that pop culture was every bit as valuable as the highbrow stuff we’d been taught to revere at university.

In politics, the old distinction between toffs and Trots fell by the wayside and, from a social point of view, the leading lights of the two main parties became indistinguishable. Whether educated at a secondary modern like John Major, or a famous public school like Tony Blair, all politicians aspired to the same ‘classless’ ideal. Rather than the old music-hall stereotypes, socialists and Tories alike aspired to resemble chat show hosts — relaxed, friendly, bland.

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the long march of equality, both in the 1990s and beyond, was the shifting balance of power between the sexes. The decade began with Neil Lyndon writing a controversial essay for the Sunday Times Magazine in which he took on the doctrine of feminism, claiming its casual, unthinking demonisation of masculinity was having a damaging psychological effect on the next generation of men. As if to prove his point, he was rounded on by almost every prominent female journalist in the country who, as one, claimed his ‘warped’ view of women was the result of his having a small penis. His career never recovered.

I enjoyed Alwyn Turner’s book a great deal but I don’t think he’s quite done the subject justice. The book I really want to read will be about the all-conquering ascendancy of egalitarianism in the postwar period. Politically, it may have been defeated, as one European country after another has embraced free market capitalism and its attendant income inequality. But this high-profile failure has masked its success in almost every other sphere of our lives. To all intents and purposes, Britain is now a socialist utopia. The rich can make believe they’re different from you and me by engaging in ever more garish displays of conspicuous consumption. But in reality we’re all the same.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • AB

    Perhaps this is why there is a movement against social mobility, epitomised by Owen Jones’ “Chavs” and Zadie Smith’s “NW” – the combination of social equality and mobility to them masks the real evil of economic inequality. So, in the new utopia, social inequality wouldn’t matter too much – we can bear dynasties of Benns and Milibands – as we’d all be on caviar (or more likely gruel).
    Oh, and didn’t Major go to Rutlish Grammar School rather than a secondary modern?

  • thegreekbook

    Toby,

    If you think of “distribution” as the result of “to distribute”, you should immediately realise a contradiction: most income is not the product of distribution. Most income is earned, not distributed. So “income distribution” is not the result of a distributing entity – say, the State – dealing out shares of income like a mother distributing shares of a pie to her children.

    If you think of “income distribution” as “the pattern of occurrence of income”, which is the legit meaning of the term, just like “blue eye gene distribution”, you should realise that you cannot “redistribute” that, because it’s a pattern of occurrence.

    So here’s the left-wing sleight of hand: when they say “income distribution” they mean indeed “pattern of occurrence”, but then the rug is pulled from underneath the expression and “distribution” is switched to mean “the result of State distribution”.

    Hence “income redistribution” is a wonderful expression. It subsumes that (a) the State does the distribution and thus is entitled to re-distribute and (b) establishes precedent; if income was distributed once, it can be re-distributed any number of times.

    Which of course is nonsense. Most income is earned, and taxation with the purpose of central bureaucratic distribution is simple expropriation, or legalised theft.

    By using their language – “redistribution” instead of “theft”, “liberal” instead of “left-wing authoritarian”, “progressive” instead of “someone who wants to replace something that works with something that merely sounds good”, and – my favourite – “progressive tax” (there’s nothing particularly “progressive” about increasingly higher marginal tax rates) you lose much of the argument before you even make it.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    I can’t believe I’m reading this. The poor get fucked over but that’s fine because no:one can say the n- word? Meanwhile a whole generation are brought up to believe that voting Labour is a right to live on benefits forever? Toby you’ve no clue , yours is a recipe for British failure

    • Fergus Pickering

      What on earth is the n word?. The only one I know is nigger, but I don’t see how that fits in here.

      • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

        “Nobs”

  • E Hart

    This is an article remarkably free of depth and perception. Ironing a label onto something doesn’t make it reality. This is just cognitive dissonance. It is, though, a fitting account of the fashionable disjuncture between words and deeds – reality and fantasy.

    If you really want to look at the trajectory of the West in its present ‘Amazonian’ struggle, look no further than the social, economic and political parallels it has with scenes described in Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle. We’ve got the labels right but in the surrealist sense of Magritte. They are affixed to things to which they don’t apply – ergo, a ‘Socialist utopia’ – which is neither Socialist nor a utopia. Unfortunately, whilst Magritte was interested in the nature of reality, we’re interested in surrealist labeling for its own sake.

    In reality – that inconvenient truth – we are going backwards. At the moment we are in the late 1920s but on course to hit 1906 sometime soon, just in time to start work on a zero hours contract, with no sick pay, no holiday pay and restrictive lavatory breaks. If it is such a good idea, I’d suggest that you pack the books rather than read them. The dawning of reality on your furrowed brow would be a sight to behold.

    Give the market its head unfettered – which we’ve done – and you’ll arrive in a savage dystopian fantasy which is heaven to some but hell for everyone else. You can call it anything you like but it doesn’t make it true or real. The ‘triumph of equality’ is a case in point.

    • Baron

      Statutes can bring about any kind of social equality one’s heart desires, they’re of no use to do much to the equality of money in one’s pocket whether one does or doesn’t give the market ‘its head unfettered’ Sooner or later reality will seep through.

      In 1953, the Czechs, then under the spell of the Marxist inspired creed, carried out a monetary reform, everyone could convert a small sum of money at 1 to 1, the rest got changed at 50 to 1. At a stroke, the burghers of the small sliver of land in mid Europe attained the nirvana of economic equality so desired by its founders. They all became equal in poverty.

      It took less than two decades, and reality reasserted itself. The black market, the Western tourists, occasional trips by some to the West, other sources of income like that and voila, in the dictatorship of the hammer and sickle with alot of income setting laws, punishments for breaking them economic inequality bloomed.

      What you make of it, E Hart?

      • E Hart

        It was a silly idea that was bound to fail. Nobody is talking about some absurd blanket equality. There are more successful methods – which we and US once used – such as much higher marginal rates of taxation, exchange controls, a mixed economy (not just the PLC model) and collective bargaining. Also, the idea that you cannot impose a ratio on earnings top to bottom is nonsense. If you can means test benefits, you can just as easily stop PLC boards from rubber stamping inflationary pay scales which (often) bear no relation whatever to performance. Clearly, if you leave the field open the rentier/shareholding model will amazonise most of the population without ever wondering what effect this particular methodology will have on the general economy. We can now see the general picture – we’ve had 30 years of it – and it’s a disaster. What a fabulous job we’ve done to create the world of Wonga.

        • S Arse

          Did you live through the 70’s, when all of the solutions that you advance were tried?

          If you think that they were “successful methods” then you are mistaken, and probably certifiable btw..

          • E Hart

            Mr S Arse, I did and I lived in the 50s and 60s before that. For all its stupid strikes and ridiculous demarcation disputes, we still had some industry, we had lower unemployment (not the immovable sump we have now), more social mobility, a higher growth rate (ONS) and a better distribution of wealth. I never found putting up a few candles up that onerous.

            Now if you cast your mind over our present predicament, we are tied to a service economy which is increasingly dependent on subsistence labour, adds little in value, retards aggregate demand and might – in a good year – manage 2% growth.

            I

          • Andy

            The worse thing that befell this country was the 1945 Labour Government. There silly and stupid socialist policies set in motion a train of events from which we still suffer. You seem to forget that it was the militant union leaders with their ‘stupid strikes and ridiculous demarcation disputes’ which destroyed the industry that we had. Then as now it was all about ‘class war’ and the socialist ideal. It was bullshit then and it is bullshit now.

          • E Hart

            There was a necessary consensus after WW2 to rebuild the country, so whomever was in power the results would have been similar if not the same. Government investment and economic control was vital to direct our recovery post-WW2.

            Whilst the unions contributed to our industrial demise, government policy (across parties), lack of private investment, short-term asset stripping and off-shoring were the greater facilitators in this respect. It’s not about class war, it’s about producing a sound and sustainable economy with equity, investment and a future.

            Read about the demise of GEC, ICI etc. and you’ll get some inkling about why carpetbagging is a poor substitute for an economic policy that adds value. Also, you might like to consider the strategic economic advantages of a sovereign country which owns virtually none of its industry.

          • Andy

            There was no ‘consensus’ to Nationalise swaths of the economy. Nor, indeed, was there a ‘consensus’ for the theft of private property, which is what happened with the creation of the NHS.

            Having had to deal with many ‘Union Leaders’ I can tell you that the old school (pre war) type realised that a business needed to make a profit etc or there would be no jobs for their members. The Arthur Scargill types didn’t give a damn about their members jobs or interests, it was all about revolutionary Socialist politics and class war. I loathed and detested them then and I do so now. They killed many perfectly good businesses and many managements simply got fed up trying to deal with them, because the reality was you couldn’t deal with them.

            Like I said the worse thing to happen to this country was that stupid Labour Government. And the problem is the stupid and evil philosophy of Socialism has taken too greater hold in this country. If you root that weed out and destroy it there is a chance of a revival.

          • E Hart

            What part of a ruined economy and ruined country don’t you understand? It was a de facto consensus. If we had relied on private capital chasing private interests to restart the post-war economy we’d still be waiting now. What’s more many of the pre-war industries of which you seem so fond (railways and coal being prime examples) were run lamentably and starved of investment. Go and read a bit of history (e.g. the Sankey Commission report 1921).

            Also, Proudhon wasn’t wrong when he observed that property tends to come about by theft. Frankly, I’d rather it were stolen for the public good than preserved as a private fief.

    • Ibsen

      E Hart

      2 days ago

      This is an article remarkably
      free of depth and perception. Ironing a label onto something doesn’t
      make it reality. This is just cognitive dissonance. It is, though, a
      fitting account of the fashionable disjuncture between words and deeds –
      reality and fantasy.

      If you really want to look at the trajectory of the West in its
      present ‘Amazonian’ struggle, look no further than the social, economic
      and political parallels it has with scenes described in Upton
      Sinclair’s, The Jungle. We’ve got the labels right but in the surrealist
      sense of Magritte. They are affixed to things to which they don’t apply
      – ergo, a ‘Socialist utopia’ – which is neither Socialist nor a utopia.
      Unfortunately, whilst Magritte was interested in the nature of reality,
      we’re interested in surrealist labeling for its own sake.

      In reality – that inconvenient truth – we are going backwards. At the
      moment we are in the late 1920s but on course to hit 1906 sometime
      soon, just in time to start work on a zero hours contract, with no sick
      pay, no holiday pay and restrictive lavatory breaks. If it is such a
      good idea, I’d suggest that you pack the books rather than read them.
      The dawning of reality on your furrowed brow would be a sight to behold.

      Give the market its head unfettered – which we’ve done – and you’ll
      arrive in a savage dystopian fantasy which is heaven to some but hell
      for everyone else. You can call it anything you like but it doesn’t make
      it true or real. The ‘triumph of equality’ is a case in point.

      9

      3

      Reply

      Share ›

      Baron

      E Hart

      2 days ago

      Statutes can bring about any kind
      of social equality one’s heart desires, they’re of no use to do much to
      the equality of money in one’s pocket whether one does or doesn’t give
      the market ‘its head unfettered’ Sooner or later reality will seep
      through.

      In 1953, the Czechs, then under the spell of the Marxist inspired
      creed, carried out a monetary reform, everyone could convert a small sum
      of money at 1 to 1, the rest got changed at 50 to 1. At a stroke, the
      burghers of the small sliver of land in mid Europe attained the nirvana
      of economic equality so desired by its founders. They all became equal
      in poverty.

      It took less than two decades, and reality reasserted itself. The
      black market, the Western tourists, occasional trips by some to the
      West, other sources of income like that and voila, in the dictatorship
      of the hammer and sickle with alot of income setting laws, punishments
      for breaking them economic inequality bloomed.

      What you make of it, E Hart?

      3

      Reply

      Share ›

      E Hart

      Baron

      2 days ago

      It was a silly idea that was
      bound to fail. Nobody is talking about some absurd blanket equality.
      There are more successful methods – which we and the US once used – such
      as much higher marginal rates of taxation, exchange controls, a mixed
      economy (not just the PLC model) and collective bargaining. Also, the
      idea that you cannot impose a ratio on earnings top to bottom is
      nonsense. If you can means test benefits, you can just as easily stop
      PLC boards from rubber stamping inflationary pay scales which (often)
      bear no relation whatever to performance. Clearly, if you leave the
      field open the rentier/shareholding model will amazonise most of the
      population without ever wondering what effect this particular
      methodology will have on the general economy. We can now see the general
      picture – we’ve had 30 years of it – and it’s a disaster. What a
      fabulous job we’ve done to create the world of Wonga.

      Your analysis is so good I have copied it out for future reference. I fear it will be only too relevant !

      “Social equality: a la Toby Young that involves far less money to spend than the other guy is truly an Orwellind concept: pure Doubletalk. As Orwell noted, when a social order cannot be defended by decent arguments, indecent ones will; be advanced.

      S Arse

      E Hart

      2 days ago

      Did you live through the 70’s, when all of the solutions that you advance were tried?

      If you think that they were “successful methods” then you are mistaken, and probably certifiable btw..

      6

      Reply

      Share ›

      E Hart

      S Arse

      2 days ago

      Mr S Arse, I did and I lived in
      the 50s and 60s before that. For all its stupid strikes and ridiculous
      demarcation disputes, we still had some industry, we had lower
      unemployment (not the immovable sump we have now), more social mobility,
      a higher growth rate (ONS) and a better distribution of wealth. I never
      found putting up a few candles that onerous.

      Now if you cast your mind over our present predicament, we are tied
      to a service economy which is increasingly dependent on subsistence
      labour, adds little in value, retards aggregate demand and might – in a
      good year – manage 2% growth.

      We’ve got a dead duck economy that’s going nowhere very fast.

  • Rup Myers

    “The rich can make believe they’re different from you and me by engaging
    in ever more garish displays of conspicuous consumption. But in reality
    we’re all the same.”

    Really bland stuff. Come on, what do we pay you for?

  • Baron

    We are all the same only in the sense that all of us are walking towards a painful economic seizure. The entitlement culture, the monster that IDS now says ‘we cannot stop the growth of, but only manage’, is getting us there.

  • Frank P

    Twaddle, young Toby!

    Btw – WTF does ‘associate editor’ actually mean? Please elucidate.

  • CoeliaConcordia

    It’s not encouraging that one so exalted as an associate editor of The Spectator confuses, confounds and conflates terms likes egalitarianism and socialism so blithely. I really can’t understand at all what your point can possibly be in this piece.

    On a point of fact, John Major’s school was a grammar school when he attended it. It was you who attended first a comprehensive and then a grammar school in its last year, as you make a point of observing about the latter. Nevertheless you applied for university using a positive discrimination program designed for pupils from comprehensive schools http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/421666.article , was mistakenly granted admission and then famously used the good offices of your father (Lord Young) to secure the place. The rest, as they say, is history, which Hegel observed often sucks.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Good God! Was Toby’s dad the unsavoury Lord. Ah well. stepping stones and all that. And you can’t be blamed for your father, only your sons. I hope yurs are doing well, Toby.

      • CoeliaConcordia

        Curiously enough I was just meditating what it must have been like to be raised Toby Young while watching an interesting webcast about his educational philosophy here http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6300834 recounting memories of kitchen table socialism. Did come over as fairly sound I thought, though I really don’t know what he’s on about in this piece.

  • Abhay

    ”As one European country after another has embraced free market capitalism”

    Really. Is that what happened? Or is that a stultified, simplified version of the truth? The fact is that these countries joined a system of ‘globalism’ which favours a tiny few, dislikes the nation state, is anti-culture and hence supports ‘multi-culture’, supports mass immigration and social liberalism.

  • global city

    The EU embraced ‘the social market model’, not capitalist at all and is why we are now incapable of recovering like those ‘dirty capitalist yankees’ As long as we remain in that regulatory and ideological prison we will also fail to recover properly.

    Everyone seems to have forgotten that ‘Europe’ has been a slow growth area for decades. This is all the fault of the social model the EU imposes so undemocratically upon all. As we are all regulated into identicality, even the UK and German industry will be completely squashed for ever!

    • Andy

      Spot on. What we have is a pink version of Socialism that doesn’t work, never has worked nor ever will work. We should free up our economy and abolish lots of the socialist drivel which infects it.

      • global city

        Good description. I have said similarly how most things in the public sector and local authorities here in the UK have a pink tinge, not exactly anti capitalist, but neither focused on it when appropriate.

        • Petra Thompson

          The waste and inefficiency in the public sector is staggering. As a for instance, I have have to pay a service charge to the local council which amounts to almost £1000 per year. The portion of this which is for “cleaning” is around £400. I am at home most of the time so get to see how infrequently and how superficial the “cleaners” are.

          All totalled, the amount of time they spend cleaning my area is no more than 2 hours per year (and they do an appallingly bad job). The cleaners are probably paid no more than £10 per hour, so the other £380 is just burned up by wastage and inefficiency.

  • Rogervzv

    No hope or future for Britain. No rights for its subjects. Just a feckless destiny of living parasitically on the State. Problem is, someone has to do the work. So Britain will keep importing uneducated immigrants in the hope that they will work. In the end, Britain will no longer be Britain, and it will no longer be governable. It will, in fact, be Islamic, unstable, unlivable, and poor.

    • awad

      How do you work that out? The Muslim population is only 2 million and I know for a fact there are more Muslims leaving Britain than coming in. Just any chance to jump on the bandwagon of Islamophobia.

      • John Masters

        Looks like it has grown by 800000 since you posted this. Looks like you were wrong, as usual.

  • Rogervzv

    It is hard to overstate how devoid of reason this article is. Capitalism, not Socialism, promotes equality, because everyone’s pound, dollar, or euro is as good as anyone else’s. It is Socialism that allows the State, rather than hard work and earned income, to decide how we live and how well we live. Britain is far down this road and this feckless author is applauding it. Idiotic beyond words.

  • tolpuddle1

    Get real, Mr Young – where it counts (Money) Britain is aggressively inegalitarian and capitalist.

    • george

      Three cheers for capitalism: it’s done more to raise the living standards of all people throughout the free(ish) world than any other system, bar none.

      • tolpuddle1

        Pity Capitalism’s falling over a cliff then. Even more a pity that it’s terminally wrecked human nature and society (and the environment) while on the way there.

        Alternative types of free market economy do exist. If we weren’t so greedy, we would have tried them.

        • george

          Oh what a load of tosh!

          • tolpuddle1

            So you imagine. Dream on.

          • george

            I’ve got the arguments; you’ve just got assertion.

          • tolpuddle1

            I’m afraid that isn’t the case, monsieur.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Oh yes it is.

          • BoiledCabbage

            USSR being the proof.

          • george

            You don’t know anything, do you? (Hint: rhetorical question.)

  • george

    ‘In reality we’re all the same’.

    God, I wish we were. Where’s my suite in Kensington Palace?

  • Lucius_Severus_Pertinax

    Such a pity we cant just rewind the past 100 years and have a “Do-Over”.

  • commandergreen

    Liberals, leftists and the multi cult are insane, they should be locked up. One day we will come back and cleanse the UK from the hordes of non-whites and retake whats ours.

    • Holly

      Good luck with that.
      The people who will be ‘coming back to do the cleansing of the UK’ have been paid by the same bods letting them in, for a decade or more.
      Ironic or what?
      And the people wanting the ‘cleansing’ are too busy moaning about it on here.
      Of course, either Labour or the Conservatives, helped by the Lib Dems will govern after the next election, and on it will go.
      Sad truth is, we are the ones who can slow it down, at the ballot box, because it will never be stopped. the question is who else is there?

      Farage will NEVER get my vote because of the years he has gorged from the EU gravy train, all the while posturing to us about how much he hates the cost of it to taxpayers…Get rid of Farage, get someone else to get across other areas of policy, and UKIP get my vote.

      I am, at this moment being ‘forced’ to vote Conservative in 2015 just to have a slightly better chance of getting my hands on an EU referendum ballot paper.
      I will 100%, regardless of any re-negotiation, be voting to come ‘OUT’.

  • Ibsen

    “Social equality” that means having less money to spend than before compared to the rich is what Orwell would call “Doubletalk”. As he noted, when a social order cannot be defended wuith decent arguments, indecent ones will be forthcoming.

  • Marshall Riley

    Britain is a Socialist Utopia?
    Well it sounds unlikely, but then again Toby Young is getting paid to write horse cack like this so anything is possible

  • Mark Bailey

    Having worked in a school for the last 3 years, I have been in contact with a kid that lived under a bridge, others from single parent families whose parents don’t eat so that they can and others that fail at school because they have to deal with poverty… however, you keep telling yourself that it is working. if it makes you feel better. Just don’t expect it to hold any water in real life.

  • Guest

    I admire Toby despite my disagreement with his party and this article. Although many of the positive achievements he cites are true they are mere embellishments to the reality of inequalities and social polarizations that are part and parcel of what I term false Capitalism (as oppose to true Capitalism of the great Adam Smith). Facts are indisputable that our modern cities mask both inequalities of opportunities and outcomes. I am not a fan of equality of outcome (Communism) because it is there where human creativity flourishes but equality of opportunity is possible and that is education. It is undeniable fact that top and middle earners are predominately from those who had the “privilege” of public (private) education. Until first class education is a right and not a “privilege” embellished inequalities will persist and increase. I am glad Toby is addressing this need in his school.

  • I admire Toby despite my disagreement with his party and this article. Although many of the positive achievements he cites are true they are mere embellishments to the reality of inequalities and social polarizations that are part and parcel of what I term false Capitalism (as opposed to true Capitalism of the great Adam Smith). Facts are indisputable that our modern cities mask both inequalities of opportunities and outcomes. I am not a fan of equality of outcome (Communism) because it is there where human creativity flourishes but equality of opportunity is possible and that is education. It is undeniable fact that top and middle earners are predominately from those who had the “privilege” of public (private) education. Until first class education is a right and not a “privilege” embellished inequalities will persist and increase. I am glad Toby is addressing this need in his school.

  • Liam_Coal

    Sure, if you ignore that class is a category relating to economic roles, that socialism is about social and economic cooperation rather than market competition, as well as exercising some form of collective democratic control over the economy (whether limited or comprehensive), and that the inequality that matters is property ownership. If you ignore the meanings of these words and make them over into whatever you want, then yes, we live in a classless socialist society.

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