Inequality is growing nationally and globally. It is corroding social cohesion and democracy. It is creating division. It is also holding back economic development and growth. However, too few politicians seem to regard inequality as important. Indeed, some of the Coalition government's policies have directly increased inequality and there is no indication that the Government has any strong desire to reverse this trend.
If we are to understand inequality, its impact, and consider how it might be arrested (and even decreased), then we need to understand how it has evolved over time. Henry Tam in his provides an epic tour of this evolution from ancient classical Greece to the twenty first century in a very accessible and captivating way.
The book was originally published in 2010 and Henry Tam has updated and republished it to commemorate the eight hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. The author boldly claims that his book provides a historical guide to the progressive struggle for power redistribution, and draws out the underlying obstacles to the development of more inclusive communities. This is a mightily ambitious claim. Those of us who know Henry Tam will be aware of his passion for inclusivity, equality, fairness, active citizenship and strong communities. Having read the new edition of "Against Power Inequalities", I now recognise the power of his keyboard, and believe his claim for the book to be justified.
The book describes the origins of power; how those with power have held on to their power and in some cases lost all or some of it; and how popular and intellectual movements have fought against contemporary power structures with varying degrees of success and failure.
Henry Tam identifies that there are many dimensions to the inequality of power. There is political inequality and inequality of authority. There is financial and social inequality. There is also knowledge inequality as well as status inequality. All are important and interdependent, and reinforce and feed each other.
The pursuit of equality has to be about more than seeking equality of opportunity. The roots of inequality and the moral imperative demand no less.
We often tend to consider inequality in terms of income but, of course, as Thomas Piketty and others have reminded us in recent years, wealth inequality is perhaps an even greater challenge to a fair and equitable society, as well as to delivering economic prosperity for the many. Wealth and power enable those holding them to deploy a range of levers to protect and promote their interests. Wealth has a considerable influence (indeed an undue and dangerous influence) over politics in this country and internationally. It has distorted economies and economic growth.
The idea of trickle-down economic, social and political policy has surely been totally discredited on any reasonable evidence base but it is still hailed as the only way by too many politicians, much of the media and many of those with the wealth. Today in this country, you only have to listen to the cries against raising the top rate of income tax back to 50% and/or the idea of higher rates of property tax for houses with the highest value. Yet we have more people in work in poverty than ever before and benefits are being cut for some of the poorest. New employment is often based on "zero hours" contracts and low pay.
Work place inequality of power grows as trade union power is undermined and recedes. Directors (often not the actual owners but highly rewarded employees) - of large national and international companies have much more power than most employees and their trade unions - yet much of the media constantly tells us that trade union power is the problem holding back productivity, investment and growth.
Health outcomes are closely correlated to income and wealth as the Marmot report identified several years ago.
Social mobility is stalling. Senior political, Whitehall, judicial and business appointments are disproportionately dominated by those educated in private schools, which only those with rich parents can usually attend.
Globally, the richest 1% own 99% of the wealth. Inequality is growing fast in post-communist states such as Russia and China.
Some commentators and apologists for the current order would have us believe that inequality of power and resources is inevitable and many argue that it is desirable. This has been the case for two millennia as Henry Tam demonstrates. He also powerfully counter-argues that the complex raft of inequalities are not, in fact, inevitable. They can and should be challenged, both politically and by the people, including civil society.
Drawing on philosophers, politicians and popular movements over the last two millennia, Henry Tam says that greater inequality of economic and political power, resource allocation and knowledge sharing is not only desirable but achievable.
As one might expect, he makes a strong case for distributed power to active citizens engaged in social action and strong communities. Power has to be decentralised as well as shared more fairly. Power elites have to relinquish their control and their disproportionate wealth holdings and, if necessary, have these removed from them.
My own view is that democratic action has to be the only way in which power can be better distributed, and that this will require bold political action at the community, local, national, European and global levels. Philosophical essays, speeches from enlightened and progressive politicians, and even legislation and taxation will simply not be enough. Civil society has a major role to play, as does education. It will require popular demand and support for such political action. Are we witnessing this in Greece and Spain for example?
If I have a two less positive points to make about the book (other than the challenge of its very small print font), it is that for me, firstly it likely underestimates the power of economic inequality and secondly, underestimates the global mobility of the powerful and their wealth.
Henry Tam's new edition of "Against Power Inequalities" commemorating the signing of Magna Carta when the barons rebalanced their power with the king is timely and should be read by all those seeking a historic perspective to the contemporary struggles for fairness, greater equality and social justice across the world.
We have to be ready and prepared to challenge economic, political and social privilege and inequality. We must learn the lessons of the past and we must invent new contemporary approaches too.
Above all, we must offer hope in place of fear and despair. It is time for all of us to set our moral compass towards equality. Henry Tam should both inspire and equip us to do that.
Henry Tam: "Against Power Inequalities - a history of the progressive struggle" (ISBN - 13: 978-14499144635) 2015