Book: Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level

Lavishly praised by politicians, viewed with optimism by many, and full of fascinating statistics, The Spirit Level is seriously eye-opening stuff — but will it change anything?

-Kathryn Bromwich

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone is a form of ‘evidence-based politics’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two social scientists specialising in epidemiology at the University of York. Analysing statistics from all over the world, they look at the income differences within countries and how this affects social problems. The results all demonstrate that inequality has a direct correlation to almost all social ills: mental illness, bad health, teenage pregnancies, violence. Scandinavia and Japan are doing very well, while the USA, the UK and Australia are doing the worst.

No shit, Sherlock, one might say. But Wilkinson and Pickett go further than this. Not only are these problems associated with those at the lower spectrum of society, but inequality negatively affects those at the top as well, decreasing life expectancy, levels of trust and happiness throughout the country. The richer the people at the top are, the more likely everyone else is to feel dissatisfied, disappointed and worthless.

The book ends on a note of great optimism, with the authors seeming to believe that, now that the research has been made, politics worldwide will change to create more equal societies. This is possibly the only book to receive unequivocal praise from all main political parties in the UK, having been embraced by everyone from David Cameron to the Milibands. But is it really going to change things? As much as I’d like it to, it looks unlikely.

I read The Spirit Level in the wake of the London riots, at a time when the ‘scum or mistreated’ debate dominated everyone’s lips. The riots could have been a wake-up call to the public to realise that hey, isn’t it surprising that there aren’t any upper middle class kids smashing up windows? Perhaps years of deprivation might not be beneficial to ‘broken Britain’? But the Conservatives insisted and insisted that there was absolutely no political reason behind the riots, and that these kids were just intrinsically evil. The Tories might say they want greater equality, but the way they are going about achieving it is roundabout at best. Extensive statistical analysis and proof isn’t going to change how the majorityof the population thinks — unless, perhaps, the tabloids decide to heavily endorse this book. Until that day, the nature vs nurture debate will be at a standstill.

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