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Thursday, November 25, 2004


Polar Britain

No, this is not a Day After Tomorrow-style piece of writing warning of the danger that climate change poses for Britain, but a comment on the study released by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors [press release.doc / full report.pdf].

I have provided links to the RICS documents above, but, for those needing a shorter summary than a press release, it describes a Britain that is increasingly polarised, with communities segregating according to wealth, with gated communities of the better off a social and geographical gulf away from “estates overloaded with people on benefits”.

Should this matter? A decrease in social mobility and an increasing segregation of the ‘strata’ of society can be challenged on the grounds of social justice, of equal opportunities, etc. But the most concrete challenge rests on the preservation and promotion of democracy, a feature of our society that we are willing to export by war. We are told that it is greatest form of government we have yet managed, so surely we should encourage it at home?

Democracy, I argue, demands the participation of the widest range and greatest number of people in debate, culture and government. If society is segregated, then the different, separated parts of society will, necessarily, be taking part in different debates and cultures, however similar these appear on the surface. This alone is enough to make a democracy fundamentally dysfunctional, as the democratic constituency is unable to resolve the debates of governance en masse, but rather carries out different debates in materially, geographically and socially different cultures. But more than that, this segregation invariably divides society in groups with different degrees of power. In the modern age, this power is not limited to the ownership of the machinery of wealth creation, but extends to include access to the levers of governance and persuasion, whether this is familiarity with and access to legal representation or the ability to shape mass culture. This social segregation concentrates power, making the democracy not only dysfunctional, but a mask for an effectively reduced franchise. A reduced franchise might be defensible in a society that minimises the segregation of the different groups, but in one where this segregation is regarded as an inevitable consequence of market choice (the madness of crowds) and allowed to divide society, the interests and concerns of the reduced franchise will, without doubt, be very different from the disenfranchised.

Rather, we should seek to arrange our society to distribute not only wealth, but also the wealthy, conceived not only as a measure of cash, but also it terms of social, cultural and intellectual capital, throughout society.

Good point Andy. Something that would help this would be the genuine dissolution of all financial, business, political and cultural power currently swelling in London. I’m not anti-city but I do think that we’re too London-centric and this operates hegemonically across so much of public and indeed private life. Don’t get me wrong, I think London is great. It is a monument to global citizenship on one level, but it is also the site of massive inequality itself. Just think of Canary Wharf standing within a stones throw of the old East End, somewhere I visited regularly a year or so ago. The difference is stark. It is the difference between power and poverty.

We could achieve better democratic standards and regional parity if we re-located infrastructure to places like, say, Exeter or Hull. (When I say regional I obviously include London and the South East as one of the ‘regions’). People wouldn’t like it. They’d complain. But it would be an important move because it is the structures that need to move to make other changes possible.
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