It’s interesting that a book like The Spirit Level is sold these days in WH Smiths in a train station, alongside Jamie Oliver and Jackie Collins. I think that says a good bit about this place. Good as in progressive. Slowly, slowly, dear old UK, but we’re on the right tracks.
Or are we? The Spirit Level argues (and argues convincingly) that greater social equality = greater everything (from life expectancy to literacy). It’s a book that has been toted by politicians across the party divides. It’s even spawned its own website—The Equality Trust—which is a compendium of research and action plans.
It’s an argument that had won me over even before I began reading it. I sped through the book, dallying on facts and figures that would help bolster my own idea for an organisation. I learn from it that among the developed countries, the UK has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor. And among the same group we have some of the lowest levels of trust, highest levels of illegal drug use, greatest levels of obesity, and closest relationships between parents’ level of education and those of their children. The USA ranks down low too.
So what are the countries that consistently do well? Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands. And often Japan, when there’s data. When individual States in the USA are considered rather than the country as a whole, it’s ones such as New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa and Wisconsin that do the best. And of course, these countries and states have much better social equality.
The argument is complete. More equal = more good.
But. In my edition (paperback, Penguin, re-printed in 2010), there’s a page and a half entitled “Ethnicity and Inequality.” It deals amazingly quickly with a serious concern: namely that places which are more unequal are often places that have a greater ethnic mix. So the USA as a whole (which ranks #1 for greatest immigration population on the UN’s World Population Policies 2005) comes way down the rank order when it comes to equality, crime, trust, education etc. And within the USA, it’s states such as Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi that consistently come in the bottom group for all those same factors. Wilkinson and Pickett, the authors of The Spirit Level, write: “The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects.” But they go on to name other places and reports that might counter this claim. Portugal consistently does badly, they say, and that can’t be to do with ethnicity. And they finish by giving their readers a sentence about an international study which included a measure of each country’s ethnic mix: it “found that it did not account for the tendency for more unequal societies to be less healthy.”
So, in that page and a half we learn that although there may be a link between ethnicity and inequality, there’s one study that shows that there isn’t a link between ethnicity and health. Nope—I don’t quite follow that line of argument either.
Back to my whole insideoutbacktofrontupsidedown thing, I want to turn the first statement I quoted on its head. Let’s simplify “the prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions” and just go ahead and call it “racial prejudice”. (Would it be too much to go all the way and call it “racism”? Ah well.) The authors are acknowledging that racial prejudice may increase inequality. It would make logical sense, then, that countries that have less opportunity for racial prejudice (such as ones that have fewer immigrants) may be more equal. Here comes the flip: homogenous societies may increase equality. The lower the level of immigration, the greater the level of equality—and all its effects.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit too well with me. I feel that it is a subtle but persuasive means of justifying anti-immigration laws amongst politicians. And xenophobic (and racist) tendencies amongst us all.
Let’s look again at the UN’s World Population Policies of 2005. It’s not a perfect measure (because immigration isn’t the only way of capturing a country’s diversity) but it will have to do.
#1—The USA (38 million immigrants). And, as we all now know, it is close to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to equality et al.
#9—The UK (5.4 million). It too is pretty low down the list for equality et al.
And then there’s a jump.
#20—Japan (2 million). And it typically does well on the equality and other indicators.
#27—Netherlands (1.6 million)
#33—Sweden (1.1 million)
Right. So—many countries that have greater equality have decidedly lower numbers of immigrants. 380, 000 rather than 38 million, say. That’s a tricksy line of attack by me because clearly the USA has way more physical capacity for immigrants, but still…
I don’t have figures for all countries’ ethnic make-up, but the USA (#1 for immigration) is just 64% white, approximately. That’s amazing! And yet look at the UK (ranking #9 for immigration) and it is almost 90% white (85% of whom classify themselves as White British or White Irish). It makes me wonder quite how homogenous the countries ranking much lower down that list are… My point is this: if the UK is in the top 10 countries for immigration, yet still has 85% of its population as White British, immigration is not this crazy, dominating free-for-all it is thought to be.
But a lot of people would not. They view high numbers of immigrants as a problem. Including our dear Prime Minister. In his recent speech on immigration he said:
But I’m also clear about something else: for too long, immigration has been too high. Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2 million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad. That’s the largest influx of people Britain has ever had … and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country. Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare – though those have been serious … but social pressures too. Because real communities aren’t just collections of public service users living in the same space.
Real communities are bound by common experiences … forged by friendship and conversation … knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.
That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
This has been the experience for many people in our country – and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.
(You can watch the whole speech here.) Going into that line of thinking is a whole other ball o’ wax (as is his hope to bring in the best and the brightest from around the world—Social Mobility Goes Global! God help us). So rather than discrediting all of it, I’m just going to go straight to his solution : “to cut immigration, and cut it substantially.”
Here’s an alternative. Develop ways to foster integration. The social and economic fallout (“They’re taking our jobs” etc) is not an intrinsic effect of immigration. No. It is a social reaction to a situation. And it’s not a pretty one. Reactions can be changed. Why should we just accept the “disjointedness”? That, to me, is like acknowledging you’ve done something wrong but then not doing anything to make amends. As though the acknowledgement itself is enough to make it all better. I find it infuriating. I guess the UK is all too good at accepting dislocation. We are used to being a stratified country. Mostly by class, but these days a lot by race too. We just don’t talk about it. We get on and bob about in our own little spheres. And we seek out solutions to situations that are viewed as problematic, but that can in fact have huge positive impact on society if we are given the opportunities to explore and share and learn.
And even if cutting immigration substantially has positive effects on our society (which is in line with The Spirit Level‘s argument but—and I think you may have got the gist by now—out of whack with my opinion), it’s going to do sod all to improve our current social structuring. And more importantly, if diversity does breed distrust or lower education levels or greater inequality it is not because diversity is inherently bad for society, but because there are so few bridges between the different groups. Encourage integration (and by that I don’t mean assimilation, and I don’t mean just patronising celebrations of other foods and festivals). In my opinion? Cutting immigration isn’t the answer, connecting people is.