Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of a best-selling book on social inequality, will address the annual conference of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) in Glasgow tomorrow. He will tell delegates that the reason Scotland’s social problems appear so intractable is because of the gulf between the top earners and the rest of society.
Mr Wilkinson is an emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham and, with Kate Pickett, founded the Equality Trust. The acclaimed book he wrote with Dr Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, argues that many attempts to solve problems including poor physical and mental health are doomed because the problems all result from the stress caused by an unfair society.
“Our book was really the first time that the psychosocial effects of inequality had been laid out,” he says. “Before that, people thought that as long as the basic material needs were met, it didn’t really matter if some people were much richer than others. But it does.
“I don’t think that people have really understood before how a more equal society is a better society for all of us. Improve equality and you will see improvement in a lot of areas of social problems across the whole of society.”
In the book, Mr Wilkinson and Dr Pickett map various social problems in different countries against the degree of inequality and find that, almost invariably, countries where the gulf between rich and poor is smaller do better. Japan and the Scandinavian countries come at the top of almost every table, while the UK and the US languish near the bottom.
Spending per capita on health, for instance, does not appear to bear any link to life expectancy, which is much longer in countries with low levels of inequality. The same is true for many other issues.
The book argues that our desire to earn more money after basic material wants are met is entirely driven by the need for status. Where there is a greater degree of inequality, the fight for status becomes much more intense.
For those at the bottom of the heap, the emotional effects of low status translate into a range of problems. The authors claim that obesity, for instance, is caused by a stress reaction, as is illegal drug taking and violent crime. They argue that this kind of effect can be proved in work with monkeys, whose mental and physical health changes as a reaction to low status.
Professor Wilkinson says his book explains why the welfare state in Britain has not led to a situation where people have better health or fewer social problems.
He argues that, in the 1980s, “there was new-right thinking, monetarism, neo-liberalism, Thatcher and Reagan. Then Blair and Mandelson came along and said they were relaxed about people getting very rich.
“People in the private sector pay themselves these enormous salaries and huge bonuses. The people at the top broke away from the rest of us and, after that, the public sector started to emulate it. They argued that they had to
pay high salaries too to get the right people.
“That was part of what was behind the expenses row as well: MPs seeing the huge salaries that people in the private sector were getting and feeling that they were entitled to more money.”
For Mr Wilkinson, the answer is simple: “People who head public bodies should not be paid many times the average wage. It is not fair and it exacerbates the problems of society.”
He says the reaction to his book, which was published in March, has been extraordinary. A dozen foreign-language editions are due out and it has become a non-fiction bestseller. The paperback edition, which is due on January 2, can only increase its reach.
The book, written in an accessible, readable style, was even cited in a recent speech by Conservative leader David Cameron, although Mr Wilkinson said Mr Cameron focused “on the need to bring up the bottom and moved away from bringing the rich down.”
The real problem, he insists, is the rich “pulling away from the rest of us”.
With evidence mounting that social inequality is a huge driver of social problems, he hopes that governments at Holyrood and Westminster will move towards tackling the issue of income inequality, whether through taxation or through working towards greater equality in salaries paid.
“Political parties have been very timid about what they can do with this,” he says. “Most people don’t understand that if we reduced these differences then life would be better for everyone.”
Professor Wilkinson has been working in this field for a long time – ever since being involved in the UK Government’s Black Report on health inequalities in 1980. He says he hopes anger at the banking crisis will provoke a demand for greater equality. “Some people have said they found the book depressing, but I think it is really positive. All those things that seem to be going wrong in society: we now have something we can do about it.”
- The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is published by Allen Lane, £20.