The high and rising level of income inequality in the UK was, I suggested, put into sharper focus by recent political developments. Specifically, the UK government's austerity programme with associated rising unemployment and real income constraint, and the concern about banker's bonuses and CEO pay.
It was therefore a surprise to learn from an excellent article by Alf Young in Saturday's Scotsman of this recent comment by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education in the UK Government:
We live in a profoundly unequal society. More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.
As Alf Young points out this
was an astonishing critique, given that it was coming from a member of a party that proposed, in opposition, to ease dramatically the burden of inheritance tax and has, in government, agonised over how quickly it could remove Labour's 50p levy on the incomes of the highest earners.
Gove's particular interest was to seek to highlight the role that private education was playing as a gateway to privilege and power across all major professions in the UK. Hence, as Alf suggests, buttressing the case for Gove's reforms of state education in England.
Alf's main point in his piece was to ask where is the debate on the role of private and state education in Scotland. Gove's writ does not run to Scotland. The Scottish Government is responsible for education here. Moreover, an independent Scotland would certainly have responsibility for a policy choice on income inequality and that would also likely be true for Devo-Max and probably Devo-Plus.
So why no debate here?
Alf Young notes that the issue of private education might be considered less salient here since pupils attending independent schools in Scotland account for only 4.31 per cent of all pupils compared to some 7 per cent in England. But he shows that the significance of private and private secondary, education is much higher in the city of Edinburgh and areas such as Perth and Kinross.
Moreover, the significance of private education should, in my view, be viewed as a symptom of the degree of income inequality.
How does Scotland compare on that score? Data from the Scottish government offer the following comparison with the Great Britain
Measures and comparisons of income inequality are fraught with difficulty - see here - so one needs to be cautious. But what these data show is that while the degree of income inequality is lower than in GB it is still quite a bit higher than the OECD average. Since 1995 the Scottish Gini coefficient has ranged between 30 and 35 while the OECD average has ranged between 30 and 31. And the OECD average is quite a bit higher than many countries that Scotland would seek to compare itself such as the Nordic countries and Germany.
Moreover, the above chart shows that income inequality was rising more rapidly in Scotland than GB since 2004-05, so that by 2009-10 there was little difference between the two: Scotland 35, GB 36.
So why no debate about this in Scotland? Why isn't this issue, given its roots in political struggle since time immemorial, a key feature of the so-called "big-debate" on Scottish independence and constitutional change?
My guess is that the parties advocating independence, especially the SNP, and those supporting the union, especially Labour, are frightened of the topic. Reversing income inequality does not give wins for everyone. There has to be losers and a few rich, and perhaps not so rich, ones at that! Therefore, better not antagonise the donors, or the business fellow travellers. We hear from some Labour party figures that when they get up in the morning they think social justice, in contrast to nationalists who think separatism and break-up of the UK. But this is surely a charade since the Labour government did little to roll back rising income inequality in Scotland and the UK. The introduction of the 50p tax on high income earners being the exception. How do they propose to operationalise their concerns about social justice if Scotland continues in the UK?
The Scottish people should be told what are the specific options and policies being proposed by nationalists and unionists to deal with rising income inequality. And we need to be told now, not reassured that everything will be fine in the nirvana of Scottish independence, or a UK union with more constitutional change.