Danny Dorling is an Oxford professor of geography. His particular expertise was originally in mapping, and his interest in inequality grew out of his work on social maps of Britain. He’s now a prolific commentator on housing, health, and inequality, and this book gathers together essays and articles from 2013 to 2018.
And I mean prolific. The collection here spans a diverse range of publications: the New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the British Medical Journal and even the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily among them. I’m not sure how he had time for any of this considering he seems to have written about ten books in that five years.
There are all sorts of topics here too. Chapters cover politics, housing, education and health, but it dips into demographics, arts funding, land value taxes, race, democracy, speed limits and even children’s books. The book is full of charts, maps and graphs, many of them in colour, and there are lots of unusual visual representations. I got the impression of a curious and creative mind at work.
The ‘peak inequality’ theme is an interesting one, and was the main reason that I picked up the book. Dorling argues that Britain has now had 40 years of rising inequality, leaving us a much more divided country than most of mainland Europe. Division has become normal, which blunts our political imagination. However, “there is always a peak, and it is always eventually reached, surpassed and overcome.” Dorling suggests that there will be a pendulum swing back the other way.
The book argues that when inequality goes too far, nobody really benefits any more. Schooling becomes segregated, healthcare deteriorates, housing becomes unaffordable. Even those who think they benefit from inequality may eventually come to realise that the price is too high, and the risk too great. “Inequalities harm the rich as well as the poor.”
I found Peak Inequality to be hopeful and imaginative, sometimes polemical, and full of engaging facts. If you’ve been labouring under the impression that The Spirit Level is the beginning and end of the debate on inequality, this will be a useful corrective. As it’s a collection, you can pick and choose the topics that interest you, though I read it cover to cover. And again as you’d expect from a compendium, some are stronger than others.
For me, the biggest mis-step is an article called ‘Why Corbyn’s moral clarity could propel him to Number 10’. Published in early 2016, it praises Jeremy Corbyn as a “listening man” who’s good at making alliances. Subsequent events have, in my opinion, repeatedly proved him to be defiantly tribal in his politics. As that’s the final essay, it ends the book on a bit of a bum note. Those with a more positive view of Corbyn may disagree, and as evidenced by the diverse list of original publishers, the overall collection is much more bipartisan than its final word.