Monday, April 12, 2010


Kevin Gough died last week. He was 58. In 2005 he won £9 million on the Lottery. He died broke, alone and alcoholic. Before the big win, Kevin was happily married, worked in a bakery, couple of kids, plenty of friends. But the jackpot did for all that. He stayed on at work but colleagues grew hostile. He then blew millions on high-living and ill-advised ventures. He lost his marriage, his health and finally, last week, his life.

What does Kevin's story tell us? On one level it says something straightforward about how too much money can screw us up. But it also tells us that if you inject a large dose of inequality into our social relationships, you put them - and thereby yourself - at risk.

This simple idea - that the fact of inequality is the root of many social ills - is the main point of `The Spirit Level' , a major international study by academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Mental ill-health, obesity, imprisonment, violence and social isolation are all mitigated, they argue, by greater equality. In short, more equal countries like Japan and Finland have fewer social problems than the more socially stratified US and the UK. Inequality and broken societies are, the evidence says, incontrovertibly related.

What was personally challenging about `The Spirit Level' was that I had accepted growing UK inequality because I know that top 10% of earners contribute 50% of all income tax. Indeed it seemed to me almost `moral’ to allow top earners to go make hay - incentivized by globally low taxes - because we need them to pay for schools and hospitals.

However, two profound points have, I think, changed my mind. Firstly, the financial benefits of more tax coming from higher earners have probably been dwarfed by the costs of us allowing an unequal society to develop in the first place. The second is that in an unequal society even the better-off are far more anxious, fearful and unhealthy than if they lived in a more equal one. Equality, it seems, helps even high earners, even if like me we hate the extra taxation!

So what do we do? Collectively we in the third sector need to remind the parties at this important time that equality will benefit everyone. Politicians, particularly on the Right, need to know that the Big Society has, by definition, to be One Society, not several grossly unequal camps drifting further apart.

As civil society organisations, we need to continue to walk our talk. Thankfully, unlike the public sector, we never bought the bullshit that supersonic salaries buy success. This fallacy forgets that organisations are, in fact, human communities. And like poor Kevin Gough, our charities need a degree of equality if they are to survive and thrive.


London Rebuilding Society said...

Equality has been considered a somewhat dirty word over the past decade - it required the suffix 'of oppurtunity' in to make it useable in polite company.

As your anecdote highlights, equality, even if not intrinsically valuable, just makes human lives go better.

None of the manifesto's talk much about old fashioned equality of resources but they all share a common thread in that they advocate policies which promote a more equal distribution of power in terms of rights and access to resources.

Proposals like public sector cooperatives and mass outsourcing of public services to grass roots social enterprises means a radical redistribution of access to resources and authority to deploy them. Both the Tories and Labour are happy to go with the flow on this but neither seem to recognise, at least publically, that this will mean a much more substantively equal society, with a radically different sort of state. It's worrying when politicians do realise the radical implications of their policies.

I wonder if PM Cameron will come out as an anarcho-communist?

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Haha! Anarcho-Cameron. Quite a thought. While I really like a lot of the Tory manifesto - it is radical - I dont' believe that Dave and team have the political balls or underlying strength of belief to do it. This is all Steve Hilton stuff. Without a stonking majority the party in Parliament and the media, together, will see a lot of it off I think.