Unequal Britain: Equalities in Britain since 1945

June 3, 2010

This book is the product of a group of authors affiliated to the Institute of Historical Research and examines the question of inequality from the viewpoint of groups who are often seen as disadvantaged: older people; racial minorities; religious groups; Gypsies and travellers; women; non-heterosexuals; and people with disabilities. The case of each is examined by one or more of the contributors.

The foreword is written by Julia Neuberger. While acknowledging the changes that have come about since 1945, she announces that "this is a book that should make its readers very angry". Perhaps she underestimates those changes.

In 1945, Britain was overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon and nominally Christian. "No Blacks or Irish" notices displayed by landlords were legal and common. The archetypal "Oxo family" was cared for by a mother who stayed at home, did the washing and ironing, cooked the meals and was unlikely to have been educated beyond the age of 15. Homosexuality was a crime, although it would soon be regarded as an illness.

Some 65 years later, we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society with Gay Pride marches to entertain us. About 40 per cent of school leavers attend university (the majority of them women), and the number of women in the workforce approaches that of men. Many women are in part-time or low-paid jobs, but in the highest-status profession of all, medicine, young women make up the majority of students. And the British National Party's Nick Griffin has been no more successful than Oswald Mosley in entering Parliament. So there is reason for satisfaction, if not complacency.

Individual chapters produce some interesting nuggets. The chapter on older people reveals, intriguingly, that the Beveridge report, the blueprint for the welfare state, recommended that people should be encouraged to work beyond the normal age of retirement by offering them higher pensions if they did. If adopted, this would surely have helped to overcome the postwar labour shortage and gone a long way to heading off the present pensions crisis, but it was quietly forgotten.

The integration into British society of immigrant communities (who came to offset the labour shortage) is the subject of another chapter, which raises the question of why there was so much hostility towards the Muslim community after the 2005 London Tube bombings, but little or none towards the Irish community during the IRA campaigns of earlier decades.

Could it be that Irish leaders, notably Catholic bishops, were vociferous in their denunciation of the bombings, while there has been a more muted response from the Muslim community? Muslims are handicapped by the fact that Islam is not a hierarchical religion with clearly defined authority and leadership figures, a feature that can leave the field clear for self-appointed "spokesmen" whose views are often offensive but neither authoritative nor representative.

The chapter on Gypsies and travellers makes the point that the former find "New Age" travellers an embarrassment, and reports that Gypsies are the group against which most prejudice is felt, slightly outdistancing asylum seekers in that uncoveted distinction.

However, this chapter needs more factual underpinning and the number of sources it quotes (a strength of the book as a whole) suggests that the facts are probably available. Newspapers are criticised for making references to illegal behaviour by Gypsies, but the author does not examine the basis of such criticism. Is there evidence that they are more or less likely to break the law? Is the criticism based on sheer prejudice? We need to know and given the quantity and variety of crime statistics compiled today, someone presumably knows the answer.

The chapter on disability shows that, between 1950 and 1997, the amount spent on benefits for the sick and disabled in real terms, excluding inflation, increased more than fivefold, so we're doing something right. The chapter on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens refers to the achievements of remarkable people such as the codebreaker Alan Turing and brave individuals including MPs Chris Smith and Angela Eagle. They may have done more to combat prejudice than any law ever has or could. The Welsh rugby union player Gareth Thomas has joined that honourable roster since this book was published. Now we need some footballers to follow his example.

The book should be read by teachers of the social sciences, for whom it is a good source of ideas for essays. One of its strengths is that it will encourage students to examine some of its ideas by doing their own research, using its generous source references and reading lists. And that's just what they should be doing.

Unequal Britain: Equalities in Britain since 1945

Edited by Pat Thane. Continuum, 240pp, £18.99. ISBN 9781847062987. Published 19 February 2010

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