Books interview: Stewart Lansley

The author of The Richer, The Poorer on how Orwell, Steinbeck and Galbraith sparked an interest in poverty and inequality, taking a long view and fighting back

December 20, 2021
Stewart Lansley, author of ‘The Richer, the Poorer: How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor’

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
I was slow to start reading, but then gained an appetite for adventure novels before graduating to crime and Agatha Christie.

Which books first spurred your interest in poverty and inequality, in the UK and beyond?
George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ken Coates and Richard Silburn’s Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman and J. K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Three of them are still in print, and all are still so relevant for understanding where we’ve ended up today.

Your new book explores ‘how Britain enriched the few and failed the poor’ over two centuries. Which books offered important insights and a model for its kind of accessible, long-range overview?
I tried to avoid heavy statistical analysis and to concentrate on the story behind the data: the political and economic power battles played out between boardrooms, Whitehall and wider society; the voices of those on the losing end of the immense upheavals of the period; and the role played by the evolution of social science. One essential starting point was Nick Timmins’ The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State, a highly readable, revealing and original account of how we stumbled, slowly and too often with backward steps, from 1945 to today. Then there’s David Donnison’s insightful Politics of Poverty – a personal account of his time as chair of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Also important are Robert Skidelsky’s brilliant biographies of Keynes, Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, told through their eyes, and the gripping volumes on early post-war history by Peter Hennessy and David Kynaston.

Which books would you recommend for people seeking to break the long cycle of inequality in the UK?
For an academic text, it’s difficult to beat the great Tony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? largely written while he was in hospital. Drawing on his own decades of scholarship, the book spells out 12 detailed proposals – his personal manifesto for change. John Hills’ Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us nails the misrepresentations spread by opponents of Britain’s welfare system. For an inspiring and optimistic take, there’s How to Fight Inequality (and Why That Fight Needs You) by Ben Phillips.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Caroline Moorehead’s A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism, an uplifting and moving account of immense courage, to my partner.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Jack Shenker’s Now We Have Your Attention: The New Politics of the People, Catherine Bailey’s The Lost Boys: A Family Ripped Apart by War and The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow at the University of Bristol’s School of Policy Studies. His latest book is The Richer, The Poorer: How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor (Policy Press).

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Shelf life: Stewart Lansley

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