As I write, the story of Brexit continues even though it is pretty unclear what will happen: whether we will crash out at the end of October, whether we will have a hard or a soft Brexit, whether there will now be a lengthy period of reflection on the way forward, perhaps with a confirmatory referendum, or whether the whole thing will be called off. What is clear, however, is that emotions are running high and significant divisions have opened up across the country. There have been increases in hate crime and as I go around, there is a less kindly politics at work which gives reason for concern.
Naturally, people of good will (and I count most of us in the churches in this box) are uncomfortable with this sort of division and we want to get stuck into addressing the differences and building greater levels of trust and reciprocity. True reconciliation, though, comes from understanding and coming to terms with the deep position of the other. This requires at least some analysis of where people are coming from and what is driving the stance they are taking. Now, this is not to say that people did not know what they were voting for in the EU referendum but rather that there may have been deeper drivers at work that we need to take into account in our work of reconciliation.
For me, one of these drivers is inequality; equality, and the general sense that in a good society everyone should be included, is a fundamentally Christian theme. Together with freedom and justice, it is one of those ‘first order issues’ for Christians that cannot be avoided. It’s such a special issue that there is a word the New Testament uses for those who are excluded, the word ‘ptochos’, which is one of the words we translate as ‘the poor’. Its original meaning, though, is much richer; it is the word Jesus uses to describe those who find themselves on the outside of the system. Those who have no place in the scheme of things. ‘Blessed are the ptochos,’ says Jesus, ‘because they will inherit the earth.’
In our own time, inequality has changed its shape. The 1980s saw the rich get significantly richer and the poor get on the whole, less poor, but there was significant divergence in income and wealth. McKinsey Global did research in 2016 which demonstrated that across what used to be called the developed world, inequality now has a different shape.
According to McKinsey Global, 70% of households in the UK are seeing either a stagnation or an actual drop in their income in real terms. Psychologically, this is a very different sort of experience. If almost everyone’s income is rising, which is what was happening prior to 2006 (98% of households saw annual increases in their income in real terms) but some people’s income is rising faster, then this does not feel so bad; but where incomes are actually dropping, this can feel like a real threat. It is, in my view, the source of a significant reservoir of resentment.
When we add to this the regional nature of inequality, we can begin to see something which needs to be tackled. There are significant disparities, not only between north and south, but also between east and west of the country, and these differences have been on the increase in recent years. There has been some controversy around this graph, but I think it gives as good a picture as any in terms of the state of regional inequality in Britain and how it has increased over the last 15 years. In real terms, GDP per person employed in the richest area (Camden and the City of London) was 1.7 times that of the poorest area Torbay in Southwest England) in 2000. By 2016, that ratio had increased to 2.6, with Torbay’s GDP per person employed having fallen 20% and Camden’s having increased by a similar amount. It is clear that regional inequality in Britain is bad and getting worse.
Maybe what needs to be tackled is this increasing sense of exclusion that our economy only works for some. For me, this is at the root of some of the things we need to challenge.
We have through our Near Neighbours work a programme called Real People, Honest Talk, bringing people together across their differences and creating a conversation about how we live together well. This is very important, but there are deeper issues like inequality that need to be tackled if we are to deal with the deep realities of the Brexit debate.
Canon Paul Hackwood
Church Urban Fund