There are basically two different futures on offer. Obviously it is possible to nuance the alternatives but basically, we will either create a just settlement in the Middle East and thus reduce and contain the threat from Al Qaeda; strengthen international law and multilateral institutions focused on the reduction of poverty; share the planet’s natural resources more fairly and sustainably and containing the risk from global warming. This will require a different and less materialistic and fossil fuel consuming way of life and a more equitable world order.

The alternative, which is the road we are currently on, will intensify the suffering of the Palestinian people and the quagmire in Iraq, thus increasing the threat from Al Qaeda; weaken international law and the authority of the UN; intensify the competition for oil and other natural resources; fail to contain nuclear proliferation; The head of the UK Meteorological Office said that over the next 30 years, the turbulence, drought, flooding and instability resulting from the growth of carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution could not be to address the growth in poverty concentrated in the mega cities of the developing world as world population moves from 6-9 billion by 2030-50; fail to address global warming and the strain on our environmental resources and thus experience increasing poverty, disorder, conflict and environmental crisis and catastrophe. These dangers are so great that serious scholars argue that if we do not make major changes in the way we live over the next 30 years, we could well be advancing towards the end of human civilisation on the planet within the next two centuries.

The enormity of the dangers we face – which I believe are more seriously understood by people in the UK and elsewhere than by the global elite, can cause people to give up in despair or to laugh off the dangers as does the Bush administration. At a meeting of the All Party Group on Climate Change, the head of the UK Meteorological Office said that over the next 30 years, the turbulence, drought, flooding and instability resulting from the growth of carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution could not be halted. But he went on to stress that a failure to take action within this period would lead to catastrophic events by 2100. These are short time scales. There is much to be done and much that can be done. Countries that are the least unequal – the Scandinavian countries whose geography we share – also stand for highly progressive policies on the international stage. They provide high levels of aid, are very strong supporters of the UN, disarmament and non proliferation treaties. longer reduce social problems or add to well being. However, I am afraid that the media driven politics with which we are now living mean that leaders are picking up from focus groups the public’s concern about poverty and global warming and thus issuing warm words but are not taking serious action to deal with the growing threat. Thus David Cameron promises that his blue will be tinged with green but believes in Thatcherite reform of the public services and a pro American foreign policy. And Tony Blair promised that the UK Presidency of the G8 would focus on poverty in Africa and global warming but despite huge levels of public support, little was achieved. The meeting was very successful spin, but in practice little was delivered to Africa and President Bush’s intransigence ensured that there was no progress on climate change.

Beyond spin, I do not believe it is possible for the UK to play a leading role in “Making Poverty History” unless it commits to policies that will reduce inequality at home so that public opinion with support work to reduce poverty across the world and to build a less materialistic and competitive way of life. Richard Wilkinson has made a study of comparable measures of the scale of inequality in different societies [1]. He concludes that these findings demonstrate why, despite their extraordinary material success, modern societies are social failures. He summarised his findings in an important article in Renewal. He concludes:

In societies where income differences between rich and poor are smaller, the statistics show not only that community life is stronger and people are much more likely to trust each other; but also there is less violence – including substantially lower homicide rates – health is better and life expectancy several years longer, prison populations are smaller; birth rates among teenagers are lower, levels of educational attainment among school children tend to be higher; and there is more social mobility. In all cases, where income differences are narrower, outcomes are better.

That’s a lot to lay at the door of inequality, but all these relationships are statistically highly significant and cannot be dismissed as chance findings. Some have already been shown in large numbers of studies – there are over 170 looking at the tendency for health to be better in more equal societies and something like forty looking at the relationship between violence and inequality.

He goes on to argue:

The first thing to recognise is that we are dealing with the effects of relative, not absolute deprivation and poverty. Violence, poor health or school failure are not problems that can be solved by economic growth alone – by everyone getting richer without redistribution. Across the richest 25 or 30 countries there is no tendency whatsoever for health to be better among the most affluent rather than the least affluent countries. The same is also true of levels of violence, teenage pregnancy rates, literacy and maths scores among school children, and even obesity rates. 

However, within each country, these problems remain closely associated with income and any other indicator of socio-economic status. The implication is that what really matters about income is where you are in relation to others in your society – it is a matter of relative income or social status, not whether the population in one rich country is on average twice as rich as that of another. So, for example, the USA has the highest homicide rates, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest rates of imprisonment and comes about twenty-sixth in the international league table of life expectancy because it also has the biggest income differences. In contrast, countries like Japan, Sweden and Norway, although not as rich as the USA, all have smaller income differences and do well on all these measures. Even among the fifty states of the USA, those with smaller income differences perform as well as more egalitarian countries on most of these measures.

Wilkinson goes on to show that inequality also breaks down trust and social co-operation:

The growing awareness of the importance of the social environment to health raised the question of whether the quality of social relations differed between more, and less, equal societies. When analysed, data from a number of different sources left no room for doubt: people in more unequal societies trust each other less, they are less likely to be involved in community life, and rates of violence are higher. All suggest that inequality damages the quality of social relations. Indeed, this must be one of the most important ways inequality affects the quality of life for all of us. In the most unequal of the fifty states of the USA, 35 or 40 per cent of the population feel that they cannot trust other people, compared with perhaps only 10 per cent in the more equal states. The international differences are at least as large. Measures of social capital and the extent to which people are involved in local community life also confirm the socially corrosive effects of inequality. Given the dysfunctional response to hurricane Katrina, it is interesting to note that New Orleans is among the most unequal cities in the USA.

It is notable that the countries that are the least unequal – the Scandinavian countries whose geography we share – also stand for highly progressive policies on the international stage. They provide high levels of aid, are very strong supporters of the UN, disarmament and non proliferation treaties. Their politics are deeply social democrat. In my view, the tragic missed opportunity since 1997 is that just as the people of the UK were becoming much more supportive of social democratic ideas, New Labour moved away from them. The model for New Labour was the US and particularly the New Democrats which was where ideas like tax credits and Sure Start were taken from. But the Scandinavian model is one of highly efficient modern economies with quality public services, much less inequality and a much better quality of life. My conclusion is that the UK and the Labour Government in particular needs to change its analysis and the model of the good society to which it is working and to implement different policies at home if it is to win public opinion to support for the policies necessary to Make Poverty History.

I do not believe that it is possible to mobilise the influence of the UK for greater international justice, poverty reduction and sustainability on the international stage unless we stand by these values in all aspects of our foreign policy and in the way we organise our own society. There is no doubt that the occupation of Iraq, failure to support a just peace for the Palestinians or to halt the displacement and suffering of the people of Darfur and Congo; the existence of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition are all undermining International Law, respect for human rights and the authority and influence of the UN. On all of these issues the UK is the automatic ally of the US. In addition, the US failure to ratify the Kyoto treaty or support the International Criminal Court is a major setback for multilateralism but despite paying lip service to these values, the UK continues its intimate and almost unconditional support for an extreme and unwise US administration and this makes it impossible for the EU to stand together behind a better approach to global problems.

I am very sad to say that Labour’s commitment to international development which has been a strong value since the days of Harold Wilson is now more a piece of triangulation than a distinctive analysis underpinning the whole of our foreign policy and the use of our influence in the world. The UK is now the fifth or sixth largest economy and as China and India, grow our clout in international affairs will continue to diminish. But we still have potential influence for good on the world stage. We have seats on the UN Security Council, IMF and World Bank Boards, membership of the UN, the Commonwealth and the EU. If we sought to combine with others to build a more just and equitable world order, the potential is enormous. But instead, every post war Prime Minister apart from Edward Heath has made the “special relationship” the centrepiece of our foreign policy. I believe this to be a part of the problem of a country that “lost an Empire and never found a role”. Our role now is best friends of the biggest power in the world. It makes our leaders feel powerful when like Harold Macmillan they can pick up the phone to President Kennedy and advise him on how to handle the Cuban missile crisis. Tony Blair felt the same sense of power over Iraq but sadly gave his unconditional support to an unwise policy which is continuing to cause enormous suffering and hatred.

My conclusion is that the UK faces a major choice. If it wishes to really help to “Make Poverty History” and the world safer and more sustainable, we need to commit to social democratic values dedicated to a reduction in inequality at home and a foreign policy dedicated to a more equitable and sustainable world order. In 1997 I hoped that this was our intention but we have ended up on the wrong road. There needs to be an intense debate uniting all progressive forces on what kind of country we want to be. The decision whether or not to replace Trident could be a catalyst for this debate. The question is not just “do we want nuclear arms and who do we point them at?” but “what is our role in the world?”. We cannot play a leading role in making poverty history and continue to act as America’s poodle. We need to choose.


[1] R. Wilkinson (2006) The impact of inequality: empirical evidence. Renewal 14 (1). 2

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