Danny Dorling begins his wide-ranging, entertaining, excoriating and slightly messy account of the fractures in British social and economic life with a claim many will find surprising: that living standards in Britain reached their high point in 1974. The now-demonised years of the postwar consensus saw health outcomes dramatically improve, living standards climb to their highest levels, inequality reduced to its lowest point in British history and social solidarity peak. It has been downhill from there. Dorling’s book offers a compelling description of that continuing decline that will leave you alarmed about the state of our nation, though perhaps not significantly enlightened about how to reverse it.
Dorling’s argument is that the shattering of Britain has been comprehensive, forty years in the making and is ongoing. At the heart of the book are five chapters that offer an updated audit of what William Beveridge in the 1940s referred to as the ‘five giant evils’ that plagued Britain. These chapters, though confusingly organised, are extremely powerful and carefully argued. They paint a picture of a Britain where working hours have soared while real wages and productivity have slumped; where the quality of health care, housing and education has declined, precipitately for the less well-off; where the shift from a comprehensive welfare state based on individual dignity to a residualised one based on ‘minimum pay-outs and frequent penalties’ has damaged millions; and, most importantly for Dorling, where higher levels of inequality have generated new social sicknesses, harmed our economic efficiency, cost the taxpayer billions and undermined the efficacy of public services. It is a damning, multilayered account, filled with telling examples and narrated with admirable humanity and burning anger.
This is a book with not a single graph or table, but it is packed with facts and statistics that often astonish. Dorling observes that levels of hunger are at their worst since the 1930s, while real wages have declined more than at any time since the 1780s.