Britain prides itself on its sense of justice, on fair play and sticking up for the underdog. So what's gone wrong? Increasingly, as we look around, we find we're living on Inequality Street.
Take, for example, the 2010 austerity programme. In theory the cuts didn't have to target the poorest, but in reality they have. This week The Centre for Welfare Reform published a new report, Counting the Cuts, which measures, not just how large the cuts have been, but also how fair they are, and who is being targeted. The results are shocking.
By 2015-16 an average person will have experienced a loss of £1,126 per year, mostly experienced as a reduction in the public services they use. However:
- If you're on a low income that cut will be more than doubled - £2,744
- If you've also got a disability then the cut will be four times greater - £4,660
- If you need social care then you will lose nearly six times the average - £6,409
In other words the cuts are designed to increase inequality and to target those already disadvantaged. People on low incomes will see their incomes drop. People in need will see vital services cut. And many of these will be the same people, attacked at the same time, in two different ways.
Sometimes we end up on Inequality Street even when the government publicly declares that it is going to do things fairly. For instance, when the government announced the cuts programme in 2010 the prime minister said:
"But it's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load."
The government seemed to be genuinely concerned with fairness and it stressed that it was protecting pensions and the NHS. Unfortunately, when you look below the surface, you find that, while pensions are protected, benefits are being cut; while the NHS is protected, social care is being cut. The result is reducing support for those in greatest need.
And there are many other routes to Inequality Street. VAT is increased, despite this tax having a much bigger negative impact on the poor than the rich. Interest rates are slashed, although the beneficiaries of this policy are overwhelmingly the better-off. Costs go up, while salaries go down for the poorest. The wealthy use their position to cream-off more for themselves. For example, when bankers and MPs award themselves bigger salaries or bonuses it's not because they've earned them, but simply because of the power that their position in the system gives them.
The most worrying route to Inequality Street is the direct route. This is the route taken by those who proudly declare that they deserve to earn more and to own more; this is the route taken by those who blame the poor for poverty, pouring stigma and shame on to the heads of those already disadvantaged.
In a fair society the better-off know that they are lucky. They know they did not earn their natural gifts - they were given to them by God or by Nature - depending on your point of view. They know that any success they have had is more likely to have been the result of the help that others gave them along the way, rather than being the result of sheer hard work. The poor know only too well that hard work, on its own, doesn't always lead to great rewards.
A fair society is one that treats everyone as an equal - even when there are inequalities of income or power. A fair society is one that tries to limit excessive inequality by creating systems of taxation, social security and public services that ensure everyone gets a fair deal. A fair society is one whose leaders challenge prejudice, rather than reinforcing it.
The United Kingdom is the third most unequal developed country in the world. But our biggest failing is that we don't even see this as a problem. We're getting used to living on Inequality Street; we are starting to forget that a fair society is even possible. But in the long-run our forgetfulness will cost us dearly, it's time to wake up.