Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Walpole’s Britain was a Very Unequal Place

Horace ‘Wonder’ Wall. Pole.

This Will Lloyd UnHerd piece is a polemic aimed at people … well, people like me, actually. People who were ‘born around the late sixties and early seventies [who] never solved the problems they inherited, and created a host of new ones all on their own.’ Ouch, dude. ‘They were slavish to America, ignored China and took Europe for granted. Many of them backed the Iraq War and don’t understand why that means they can never be trusted with anything important ever again.’ Say what?

It’s satire (if rather diffuse and underpowered satire) and there’s no mileage in trying to counter such a thing either with specific fact-checks or with in-the-spirit returns of serve (‘they backed Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister and don’t understand why that means they can never be trusted with anything important ever again’ and so on.) So instead of going through it with a nit-comb, I’m going to zero-in on one claim.

This is a generation that hid, or squandered what intelligence it had. They believed in win-wins and public private partnerships, or giving each others’ talentless children plumb jobs. Publicly concerned — no, obsessed — with equality, they presided over a society that became as unequal as the one Horace Walpole lived in.

This seems, on its face, unlikely. And the figures don’t support it. According to John A. James’s ‘Personal Wealth Distribution in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain’ [The Economic History Review , 41 (1988), 543- 565], the top 1% wealthiest 18th-C population held 44.8% of all wealth — basically half the national wealth — and the top 5% held 71.1%.

The figures in the UK today are: the top 1% own 21% of the national wealth, and the top 5% own 40%. Don’t misunderstand me: those are ridiculous, indefensible figures and that wealth should be redistributed, but (a) they’re percentages of a hugely increased aggregate of national wealth, so that even the poor are relatively much better off than their 18th-century counterparts, and (b) they’re half what they were in Walpole’s time. What, you ask, about the Gini coefficient? It’s a good question. In Walpole’s world it was, give or take, 0.880.

To be clear, that’s insanely high (a Gini coefficient of 0 would mean wealth is equally distributed between all households, and a Gini coefficient of 1 would mean one household held all the wealth and every other household was penniless). The Gini coefficient for the UK in 2020 was 0.460 … again, half a Walpole.

I don’t write this in defence of the manifest and ugly inequalities in my country today. But I’m not sure exaggeration to the point of actual mendacity is the best way — even in satirical venting — to marshall the forces necessary for change. The past was a place of wealth inequalities that are so extreme they are, I fear, incomprehensible to us. We really, really, really don’t want to go back to that.

[PS, re Lloyd’s ‘they thought Will Self was a novelist, and Amber Rudd a future Prime Minister. They answered every policy question with the word “education”, so now our cities overflow with miserable PhD-holding baristas.’ Here I might reply: fuck off did I; fuck off did I; and fuck you, asshole. I think that covers it.]

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