The equality paradox

Dominic Sandbrook’s series on the 1970s is surely a must-watch for anyone over 40. It has some great footage and music but it also got me thinking about just how much has changed since that turbulent decade.

A quote from Ken Livingstone resurfaced during the mayoral election campaign:

If you go back to the early 70s, my generation assumed we would have created a socialist society by now.

It wasn’t just people on the left who assumed we were moving inexorably towards socialism. A lot of right-wingers thought so too. Some were so alarmed by the idea that they talked of coups and counter-revolutionary militias. Of course, a socialist society meant different things to different people. For a few, it meant a communist dictatorship, for others something more like Scandinavian welfarism. What most people seemed to agree on, though, was that the size and reach of the state was increasing, that people were becoming more equal, and that this trend would continue for the foreseeable future.

Then along came Margaret Thatcher, leading ‘the most right-wing government ever’, and the whole thing was thrown into reverse. At least, that’s the story that has been told over the years, both by Thatcher’s enemies and supporters. Maggie came in, smashed the unions and made Britain great again. Or Maggie came in, smashed the unions, stuffed the working class and restored the privileges of the few. Take your pick.

It is certainly true that income inequality rose after the 1970s and, with a small dip in the 2000s, it has carried on increasing ever since. In financial terms, British people are more unequal now than they were in the 1960s.

(Chart from Dr John Bone of Aberdeen University. Full paper here.)

But that’s not the whole story. While all this was going on, the phenomenon known as political correctness took root. The term was invented by the American left but is now used pejoratively by the right as a catch-all for anything protects or advances the rights of women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups. The 1980s was the decade when the first ‘racism awareness’ courses appeared, starting in local government and then spreading across the public and private sectors. Some of them were horrendous, as people who attended them will remember, but they reflected a growing determination to tackle racial prejudice. Even as pickets were being charged down at Orgreave and printers sacked at Wapping, the battle against racism and sexism continued.

Social attitudes began to shift and by 1989, TV programmes like the Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour, favourites of the Labour years, were seen as embarrassing throwbacks. Both the Thatcher and Major governments strengthened the law on incitement to racial hatred and by the end of the long period of Conservative rule, language which would have been commonplace in the 1970s was considered unacceptable by most people.

The Tory years also saw an increasing number of women in the workforce and in senior positions. No attempt was made by this right-wing government to roll back sex-discrimination and equal pay laws (it would have been a bit difficult, perhaps, with a women prime minister) and throughout the Eighties and Nineties the gender pay gap continued to reduce.

While all this was going on, the decline of deference which had gathered pace during the 1960s, continued. If anything, the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Thatcher years boosted it. Spitting Image took the rise out of everybody from politicians to the royal family and, over time, Britain became a less formal and, at least outwardly, less hierarchical society.

These trends continued under the New Labour regime. Tony Blair’s government ignored calls to reverse the privatisation and deregulation of the Conservative years. If anything, they were even more eager to be close to the City than the Tories had been. They did, however, increase the level of social equality legislation. If you had told Ken’s leftie pals in the early Seventies that Labour would bring in an equality bill in 2010, to consolidate its previous legislation, they would probably have assumed that it would be a sweeping up act to confiscate the wealth of the rich, nationalise the land and destroy the last vestiges of privilege. In the event, the Equality Act said very little about economic equality at all. To mis-quote Peter Mandelson, the Labour government didn’t mind people getting filthy rich provided they had the right equality and diversity policies in place.

Between 1980 and 2010, then, social equality and economic inequality went hand-in-hand. Paradoxically, the law and changing social attitudes made us more equal in some respects while economic forces made us less so in others.

Organisations shape and are shaped by the societies around them so it was inevitable that these social shifts would be mirrored in the workplace. Last week, I re-read the case of De Souza v The Automobile Association from 1986, one of the first employment law cases I studied. Here is how it was reported at the time:

Mrs de Souza, a coloured woman, was employed as a secretary/personal assistant. She complained that she had been discriminated against on grounds of her race. Amongst her complaints was that she had overheard one of the respondents’ managers tell another, with respect to her, to “get his typing done by the wog”.

Shocking from the standpoint of 2012 isn’t it? But here’s the really interesting bit. Maria De Souza lost her case! The Employment Appeal Tribunal and Court of Appeal gave her no joy either. According to the law at the time, describing someone as a wog, if it was out of their earshot, didn’t count as racial discrimination. This reflected the prevailing social attitudes. While such language was regarded as crass and mean-spirited, and those who used it in the workplace as nasty and unpleasant people, public opinion would have baulked at banning it. It was just the sort of thing a few ignorant people did. That’s life!

Nowadays, of course, Maria De Souza would win her case and be awarded substantial compensation. The manager would almost certainly be dismissed for gross misconduct. This case is a useful measure of how far things have changed over the past couple of decades. Laws on harassment have superseded the De Souza ruling and those using racist language can now find themselves in a criminal court.

The ranks of management are more diverse too. A friend of mine recently described the latest graduate intake at her City firm:

There was a good sprinkling of black, Indian and Chinese faces but everyone was thin, good looking and spoke either with a Home Counties accent or a refined Scottish or regional one. There were no fat people, no strong accents, no-one with spots, no-one who looked a bit funny and no chavs. They might all have been different colours but they were all beautiful, shiny and well-dressed. It reminded me of a Coca Cola advert.

Of course, you still have to look and sound right to join a big corporate. These days, though, ethnicity is no barrier to looking and sounding right. It would be fascinating to compare the graduate intake of 1980 with 2010. Pound to a penny says the 1980 one would have been almost all white and male.

The decline of deference also changed things in the workplace. Shortly after I first joined the corporate world in the 1980s, I remember hearing a middle manager call one of the directors Sir, like Jerry did in the Good Life. Even in the early 1990s I worked with people who could not bring themselves to call directors by their first names. Nowadays directors sit in glass offices, or even in the open plan with everyone else, and we are all on first-name terms. Graduate trainees challenge the CEO in open meetings and email their unsolicited suggestions to senior managers. Hierarchy, at least in its formal sense, has been eroded.

And yet the gap in earnings between senior executives and the rest of the workforce is much greater now than it was in the 1970s. It seems that, over the past few decades, the closer people sat to their bosses, the further apart their salaries moved. Furthermore, a greater part of the workforce is casual and non-union than it was in the 1970s. These days, Maria De Souza would be less likely to be unionised and more likely to be working through an agency. Woe betide the manager in 2012 who referred to Mrs De Souza as a wog. On the other hand, if he decided he didn’t like her, he could just call the agency and ask them to send someone else instead.

So the paradox of the last thirty years extends into the workplace too. Formal hierarchies have broken down and we are expected to treat each other as equals now, regardless of social background, race, gender or sexual orientation. The Sir of the 1970s is now plain old Dave. But Dave earns a hell of a lot more than everyone else.

So what happened? One of the neatest explanations I have heard was from the conservative writer Douglas Murray during this excellent Radio 4 discussion about Conservatism (The quote is at about 13 minutes in.):

The right won the economic conflict and the left won the culture wars.

In other words the right chose to fight on the economic front while leaving the cultural issues to the left. American author Thomas Frank, also on the same programme, says something similar in his book What’s the matter with Kansas? The Republicans, he says, rely on outrage about things like abortion and gay marriage to get themselves elected but when they get into power their priority is to deliver tax cuts for the better off.

This tension bubbled up again in the recent local elections, with Conservative MPs blaming gay marriage and other “socially liberal things” for the party’s bad performance. My guess is that David Cameron and, especially, George Osborne, don’t give a stuff about gay marriage, immigration or any of the other things the Tory right gets upset about. Their concerns are primarily economic, which makes them much more of a continuation of previous regimes than they’d like to admit.

Perhaps the right did win the economic war and the left the culture war. We are more economically unequal but less socially unequal than we were three decades ago. But should we heap the praise, or the blame, entirely onto politicians? Much of what we have seen in Britain has occurred to varying degrees across the developed world. Inequality has risen, trade union membership has fallen, manufacturing employment has declined and welfare states have retrenched.  Even the Swedes are not quite as wedded to welfarism as they once were.

At the same time, social equality, and especially the position of women and minorities, has improved in most developed countries. In Europe, it is enshrined in a series of EU directives which mean that governments couldn’t repeal discrimination laws even if they wanted to.

Global economic changes and gradual shifts in social attitudes have driven much of this change. Politicians can take some of the credit and blame but the fact that most western countries have moved in a broadly similar direction suggests that a lot of this might have happened anyway. Some, like Thatcher and Reagan, speeded up the process but in the main, politicians just acted as cheerleaders and rode the waves.

If we could transport them forward by thirty years, 1970s politicians of both left and right would probably be aghast at what they saw. The left would rail against income inequality, privatised utilities and the relatively weak trade union movement. Conservatives would splutter into their pink gins at the sight of women bosses with same-sex partners, people with brown skins at the golf club and the general ‘lack of respect’ for those in senior positions.

How would you describe the Britain of 2012 to someone from the 1970s?

Has a lot changed? You bet! Is it a better place? Depends who you are and what you do. Is it more equal? Well that really depends on what you mean…..

Hat Tip: Rob Jones, whose ‘decline of deference‘ comments kicked off this train of thought.

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11 Responses to The equality paradox

  1. Pingback: The equality paradox - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Meg Howarth says:

    Brilliant! Thanks – and to Frances Coppola for highlighting.

  3. Simon Alford says:

    Good article.

  4. patrick says:

    Great article. The question that comes into my head is whether, on balance, the country would be a better place if the left had won the economic battle and the right the culture wars? (full disclosure – I’m of leftish persuasion on both economic and social issues)

  5. Dave Timoney says:

    There is an assumption in your analysis that there were two independent forces at work over the last 30 years, the liberalisation of the economy and the liberalisation of society, and that these can be seen as countervailing – i.e. we didn’t get greater wealth equality but we got greater social equality instead. The phrase “The right won the economic conflict and the left won the culture wars” implies that the left and right divided the spoils, so to speak, by focusing on different domains. A bit like saying: we were crap in the league, but we won a cup.

    There is no paradox here because these forces aren’t in opposition and aren’t even distinct. While conservatives may decry the march of tolerance, neoliberals don’t, and it was the latter who drove economic policy. Sexism, racism and deferrence are all inefficient if you are running a business, particularly a global business spanning multiple cultures. The same historic process that produced widening income inequality has produced greater equality of opportunity. This is meritocracy in practice.

    The left won nothing. FTSE 100 companies did not introduce equal opportunity policies because of the example of Lambeth Council in the late 70s. They did it because it suited them, just as greenwashing and CSR-blather suits them today. Anti-racism is as much as economic matter as the highly skilled migrant programme. When businesses employ skilled women, it is in their interest to support abortion and drag their feet on maternity rights. Consider the evidence.

    Cameron and Osborne do give a stuff about gay marriage and immigration, precisely because these are ultimately economic concerns. Marriage reinforces property law and immigration provides human capital for business. They will mouth the necessary platitudes to keep the conservatives (i.e. the Tory right) on side, but they will continue to pursue a neoliberal policy.

    • Rick says:

      Dave, I wasn’t assuming anything; I just thought that Murray offered a useful perspective on what had happened.

      Interestingly, as I thought about this after I’d read it, another way of describing it could be the victory of two strands of liberalism – social and economic. (Which I think is more or less what you are saying here.)

      It is also true that hitting attitudes across the generations and the globalisation of business elites means that those running companies have more cosmopolitan and socially liberal attitudes than the CJs who ran companies in the 70s did. And, as you say, they have twigged that much of this traditional Tory stuff (immigration controls, planning laws and the like) gets in the way of business.

  6. Great post!

    One thing that has, rather remarkably, not changed much since the 1970’s is equal pay between male and female workers in the public sector – despite the Equal Pay Act 1970. Only now are many councils starting to address this, for example:

    I recently wrote a blog post about the continuing need for training and development of all public service employees in issues relating to equality – specifically gender equality. I’d welcome your thoughts:

  7. Pingback: Click through! « Left Outside

  8. B.O. Locks says:

    Very thought provoking and interesting. Economic determinism at play, as suggested by Dave above, a la Marx?

  9. Pingback: Less formal doesn’t mean more equal | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

  10. Frazer Goodwin says:

    Thought provoking – but mostly in terms of having to go back and check whether Women still get a lower average wage than men – whether ethnic minorities still have higher rates of unemployment and incarceration, – and whether elites (politicians, media heads, judges, etc) are increasingly dominated by public school (mostly) boys…. think all of these apply to the UK

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