IGP Stories

Building Back Together: Confronting Economic Inequality in Britain and Beyond

Social Prosperity Europe

Alexandra Thorne

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across our country and planet - creating both immense chaos and confusion in its wake - at least one thing that’s become spectacularly clear by now is that this crisis is hitting some much harder than others.

For although the national lockdown at the start of this year offered an opportunity for some to perfect their baking talents - for others it saw severe cutbacks on an already minimal food supply.

Whilst for some, the year of 2020 was a chance to take up yoga and clean-living - for others it saw a journey to the hospital with no guarantee of return.

And whilst for some, the economic impacts of this crisis have not been too severe, for others it has plunged them into poverty exposing many of the deep and entrenched inequalities that continue to both exist and expand within Britain and beyond.

Before the current health crisis - gaps in wealth, income and opportunities in Great Britain had already been expanding since the start of the 1980s - a trend that runs parallel to most of the world’s other advanced and emerging economies.

Driven by declining employment and wages in the manufacturing sector, cuts in corporate and income tax, reduced trade union power and the rise of sky-rocketing salaries in the finance sector - economic divisions in the UK have now deepened so significantly that the British Nobel Economics Laureate, Sir Angus Deaton, claims we have reached a “tipping point” to extreme inequality.

Directing us to statistics such as the fact that the combined wealth of the 1,000 richest Brits (£724 billion) had already exceeded that of the bottom 40 percent of British households (£567 billion) and - more alarmingly - highlighting the dramatic and related rise in deaths from suicide substance abuse - Deaton has sent a warning call to the nation that if inequality is left to rise of its own accord - the UK is headed towards a grimly unequal future that could mirror that of the current United States.

In spite of warnings like Deaton’s and, indeed, many other economists and social scientists about the socio-economic threat of excessive economic inequality, the existence and expansion of income and wealth gaps have traditionally been defended by conservative thinkers as merely the intractable and inevitable result of our free-market economic system.

For these thinkers, of which most notably include the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the economic gaps between us are a good thing - acting as a primary source of inspiration for those at lower ends of the income ladder to work harder for the future, or, as Mr Johnson so nicely put it - a “necessary spur of our economic activity”.

Whilst conservative laissez-faire thinking about economic inequality has tended to dominate not only British - but also Western thought more generally - throughout the last century, the exposure of inequalities brought about by the current pandemic might offer an opportunity to pause in such thought.

For in conjunction with Deaton’s warning on reaching our inequality “tipping point” - it is safe to say that as our leaders consider how we ought to “build back better” from this crisis - they must make sure it is done together.


Butler, Patrick. 2020. "UK's Poorest ‘Skip Meals and Go Hungry' During Coronavirus Crisis". The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/12/coronavirus-lockdown-hits-nutritional-health-of-uks-poorest.

Case, A., & Deaton, A. (2020). Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton University Press.

Dabla-Norris, M. E., Kochhar, M. K., Suphaphiphat, M. N., Ricka, M. F., & Tsounta, E. (2015). Causes and consequences of income inequality: A global perspective. International monetary fund.

Stilwell, Frank John Berkeley. (2019). The Political Economy of Inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone.

Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

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