From inequality to enlightenment

A guest post by Steve Asaneilean

On September 18th we will all have our own reasons for voting Yes. That’s as it should be. There is no over-arching ideology at work here. There is no unitary path to enlightenment.  For me this journey has always been about wanting to live in a better society and having what I believe to be the best democratic means of achieving that. And I always envisaged the core principle of that society would be a perpetual drive for fairness and equality.

We’ve heard a lot over the last two years about whether we might be better or worse off by a few hundred pounds. But that could happen just by changing your gas and electricity supplier.

In reality the difference in average income between wealthier countries really doesn’t matter at all. What does matter is the level of income inequality within any given country.

In the most equal countries like Finland, Norway or Sweden the rich are 3 to 4 times better off than the poor. In the UK at present the figure is 7 times. The UK is the second most unequal country in Europe. On the OECD table of equality the UK ranks 7th bottom out of 34 countries more unequal than the supposed basket cases like Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

At present in the UK the top 0.1% of the population have average incomes in excess of £1 million. The top 1% exceeds an average of £270,000 and the top 10% average nearly £80,000. But the remaining 90% of the population have average incomes of less than £13,000.

The richest 10% in our society have 45% of the total wealth of that society. Meanwhile the bottom 50% has only 13% of total wealth between them, with the bottom 20% effectively having no wealth at all.

Between 1929 and 1979, the top 1%’s share of total wealth fell from 18% to less than 5%. Then Margaret Thatcher came to power and the share of wealth held by the 1% rose continuously, so that by the time of the “crash” in 2008 the level of inequality was back to the levels not seen since the Great Depression 85 years ago.

But why does any of this matter? It matters because in less equal societies people of all income levels do worse, with the bulk of that burden falling on the poor.

Inequality leads to reduced levels of trust; reduced social cohesion and well-being; and increased social stress.

Women in less equal societies “achieve” less political participation, reduced educational attainment, lower earnings and diminished social status.

There are also increased levels of obesity in unequal societies which, in turn, leads to increased levels of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Stress, anxiety and depression are more prevalent and there are higher levels of drug and alcohol misuse.

Overall educational attainment falls whilst the levels of teenage pregnancy and marital breakdown rise. In the UK 39% of single parents live in poverty in Sweden the figure is 18%.

Society becomes more violent, including an increased incidence of rape and murder. According to the UK Government there were 1.94 million violent crimes in the UK in 2011 and how many more went unreported?

Inequality threatens our sustainability by bringing about lower productivity, lower efficiency, lower growth and increased economic instability.

And inequality threatens our democracy. We don’t trust our politicians and we don’t trust our media. We feel disenfranchised and less inclined to vote and as a result we play into the hands of the rich and powerful who seek to mould the system to their own ends and desired outcomes. At the same time we have governments too reluctant to invest in the type of public spending which produces a thriving, dynamic economy; and too weak to engage in the type of redistribution that leads to a better and fairer society.

But how did all this come about? It came about through a change in the “political norm” to a more right wing agenda with associated change in societal attitudes to a more “me-first” culture. Trade unions were aggressively pursued and substantially weakened. Changes were made to taxes and welfare which favoured the rich and damaged the poor.

Reducing inequality needs a re-imagination of our society. I believe we need to take a new direction and the democratic change a Yes vote will deliver could help us achieve the necessary social and economic changes. It is not simply about changing the way in which we are governed, important though that is – it’s about changing ourselves, our communities, our institutions. We need to reclaim the notion that we can be a better society.

David Cameron speaking in 2009 said “among the richest countries it’s the more unequal ones which do worst…per capita GDP is much less important than the size of the gap between the richest and the poorest.”

In 2010 Ed Miliband said “I do believe that this country is too unequal and the gap between rich and poor doesn’t just harm the poor, it harms us all.”

Over the last 20 years the proportion of the UK population who believe that the income gap is too large has averaged about 80%.

Yet what has Westminster delivered? Reduced public spending, tax cuts for the rich, welfare cuts for the poor and an inequality gap unrivalled since 1931. And yet we are asked to believe we are better continuing with the current arrangements.

I believe that with independence we can do so much that Westminster is failing to do. For example: – close all tax loop holes and obliterate tax evasion; increase higher rates of tax and create a fairer tax system; ensure that the top people in a company or organisation do not earn more than a democratically agreed multiple of the lowest paid; encourage more employee-based involvement and ownership and instead of businesses serving the needs of a few rich proprietors and institutional shareholders they act like communities with responsibilities to those who work in them and the people served by them; move towards a higher paid, higher skilled economy; spend more public money on health, education, transport, etc.

This is not a call for some Utopia – it’s all readily achievable if there is a political and a societal will. And the best chance of achieving this, in my view, is by having a government in which we have 100% of the say 100% of the time.

Writing in 1784, in an essay entitled “What Is Enlightenment?” the philosopher Immanuel Kant said “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from self-imposed nonage. [a time of immaturity] Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in a lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know!”

It may have been 230 years ago but I think Kant was daring us to vote Yes.

For more on the drive for equality please see:

14 comments on “From inequality to enlightenment

  1. mary vasey says:

    Excellent post Steve, my thoughts exactly.
    Thank you

  2. WRH2 says:

    Cameron and Milliband know all this but do nothing and it has been like this for decades. I can remember the changes that occurred during the late fifties and sixties when we finally seemed to be throwing off the post war austerity and bleakness. The whole UK did improve so why were the Tories so determined to destroy that in the eighties? It’s the one thing I’ve never been able to understand but I do recognise that now it seems to be impossible to stop the drift into farther inequality. At some point the whole edifice is going to fall apart and this referendum could very well start that process. It will benefit the rUK as much as Scotland because they need a catalyst to bring about change in Westminster. A good start would be closing the HoL.

  3. Devereux says:

    Dare to know! What a wonderful call to arms.

  4. erruanne says:

    Thatcher started it – changed things forever as we knew at the time, and mourned. Her legacy in Blair and now the heartless & greedy coalition. I can’t wait to leave this political stitch up and begin again.

  5. Morag Frame says:

    I prefer Kant to can’t. Wonderful article.

  6. Capella says:

    Very true. I just watched a talk by Richard Wilkinson on TED taks. It’s about 30 mins but presents the data showing the poor health and well being which inequality produce. This needs to be shared widely.

  7. So much material is now available, and the referendum has prompted the thinking of many thoughts and the writing of many words. Having read only a small proportion of them I still find it difficult to understand why so many people appear to be voting No.

    Yes, there are those people who probably feel they are doing well, the ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ brigade. But if these people were to stop and think for one minute, or flick through Wings Wee Blue Book, they surely would be astonished at just how much they could be clobbered after a No vote. Apart from the health service, there are a whole raft of issues where they could find themselves so much worse off.

    These people see independence as a risk, and the good old UK as a safe haven. The antagonism behind the currency union refusal is because these folk have been conned into believing that things are rosy…apart from a bit of austerity that doesn’t really affect them, that Westminster will have to bail out basket case Scotland when a few years after indy, everything goes pear-shaped. They need to realise the boot is on the other foot, and it is more likely that Scotland will have to bail out rUK – as it has been doing for decades.

  8. macart763 says:

    Great post Steve and a sobering description of the UK we live in today. It needn’t however be the Scotland we live in tomorrow. With the right form of accountable government what was changed once to the detriment of our society can be changed again for its benefit.

  9. Thank you Steve. Exactly what we should be debating, and exactly the issue that a new Scotland would focus on.

  10. Alex Wright says:

    “If the principle of share and share alike for all men were not the only humane and rational basis for a society, we should still enforce it as economically expedient, seeing that until the disintegrating influence of self-seeking is suppressed, no true concert of industry is possible.”

    These words were written by Edward Bellamy in his great novel “Looking Backward from 2000 to 1887.” It’s sobering to think he penned them over a 120 years ago.

    Great post Steve.

  11. edulis says:

    I agree that getting rid of the House of Lords is a necessary early step in democratising our society. With it, in time, the royals should go. It just does not make sense to have the hereditary principle at work in a fair society. Both seem to me almost a sine qua non of an Independent Scotland.

  12. Jan Cowan says:

    One of the best articles I’ve read since the beginning of the campaign.

    Having spent most of my formative years within a Highland community I, along with many of my age group, mourn the loss of the many concerned, generous neighbours we were fortunate to know as children. These people have been replaced by others who have never experienced the worth of a close-knit community. They consider a good neighbour simply to be someone who doesn’t annoy those living next door.

    And I’ve always wondered why, when there’s a minimum wage, there isn’t a maximum wage also.

  13. hektorsmum says:

    An excellent post. Ever since Thatcher started to reclaim money and conditions from the poor we have been heading back to the dark days we thought we had left. Growing up after the War and starting work in the late sixties we thought we had it all. Well the dark days of the 80’s were only the start and we have seen the start, only the start of what will happen to those they regard as an irrelevance, those who do not vote for them as in Scotland. If we vote NO we will have fallen into their hands and I wish everyone in Scotland realised that there can be a better future, one they and their descendants can look on with pride and all it takes is a simple cross against YES. Thanks Steve, you put it much better..

  14. […] A guest post by Steve Asaneilean On September 18th we will all have our own reasons for voting Yes. That’s as it should be. There is no over-arching ideology at work here. There is no unitary path …  […]

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