Inequality 1987-2015: what has changed and what must never change

By Jill Segger
March 17, 2015

Sometimes it seems as though nothing much changes. In 1987, London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends issued a public statement in the month before the General Election of that year. It expressed anger at the polarisation of the country; condemned inequality and expressed Quakers' belief that urgent action was needed to “promote debate and to stimulate action”.

During the period 6-15 March 2015, Friends across Britain have been taking action for Quaker Equality Week. Over 80 Local Meetings have held vigils, exhibitions, debates, shown films and invited engagement from election candidates. Looking at my own Meeting, I am heartened by the media coverage we have received and the good reception from the local community.

So should we feel downcast that on one hand, so much of what was highlighted almost 30 years ago is still with us – and is arguably getting worse – or are there signs of change? Let's look at that statement from a generation ago in a little more detail.

We are angered by actions which have knowingly led to the polarisation of our country – into the affluent, who epitomise success according to the values of a materialistic society, and the ‘have-leasts’, who by the expectations of that same society are oppressed, judged, found wanting and punished.

This was the 'loadsamoney' era. We were invited to believe that greed was good and our government was led by a Prime Minister to whom the phrase “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure” was attributed. It is only fair to say that this has never been verified, but it is significant that no one from her government rushed to deny the attribution. It fitted well with the contemporary growth in individualism, taking in contempt for public services and casual sexism along the way.

The emphasis here was on success measured in monetary terms, and on worth as concomitant with acquisition. The obvious outcome was an oppressive judgement of those who did not manifest the outward appearances of 'success', whether through choice, incapacity or lack of realistic opportunity. There has been some muting of the yuppie braying of that period and although the red braces and wine bar excesses may be less evident, inequalities of wealth in 2015 are greater than ever.

The punitive element referred to the 1987 statement has increased to a dangerous level. Divisive language about 'scroungers' and 'skivers' is doing untold damage to our social cohesion and the arbitrary application of sanctions to benefit recipients has normalised the notion that to be in need is evidence of a feckless inadequacy, requiring chastisement by the more fortunate.

Whatever government ministers may claim about this 'helping' people back into work, there is no escaping the intent to punish. Indeed, that very intent was made clear in Channel 4's recent Dispatches: Benefits Britain, when a Job Centre Advisor was filmed telling an undercover reporter posing as a trainee: “The whole idea is the punishment, that’s what you’ve got to suffer.” This is cruel and unjust. There can be no condition of employment in which being five minutes late or getting something wrong due to a superior's administrative error could result in disciplinary action reducing its recipient to destitution and hunger. There were very few food banks in 1987.

As a Religious Society and as individuals we commit ourselves to examine again how we use our personal and financial resources. We will press for change to enable wealth and power to be shared more evenly within our nation. We make this statement publicly at a time of national decision [a general election] in the hope that, following the leadings of the Spirit, each one of us in Britain will take appropriate action.

The capacity to take appropriate action is the point at which hope becomes visible. Although the conditions of 1987 appear little changed, there is one large and significant difference. It is the internet. Thirty years ago, communication and the sharing of knowledge was very different. It was difficult to get information and even more difficult to combine quickly and effectively with others in taking action. Social media, blogs and websites now make it easy for groups and individuals to raise awareness, share ideas and make matters uncomfortable for politicians who would otherwise thrive on unexamined falsehood and an ignorance of facts. That the examination of personal and financial resources in the internet age has given rise to effective combined action and a wider knowledge of unjust conditions is a significant and welcome change.

We value that of God in each person, and affirm the right of everyone to contribute to society and share in life’s good things, beyond the basic necessities. We commit ourselves to learning again the spiritual value of each other. We find ourselves utterly at odds with the priorities in our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country. That denial diminishes us all. There must be no ‘them’ and ‘us’. That has not changed. It must never change.

* More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.