Fair Play: A Daniel Dorling reader on social justice

Policy Press, 2011, xiv + 397 pp, pbk, 1 847 42879 0, £24.99

In this book Daniel Dorling has brought together fifty-two of his academic papers, newspaper articles, magazine articles, and unpublished essays, to create a nicely structured and really quite devastating critique of our unequal society: devastating because so carefully researched.

The book contains sections on inequality and poverty, injustice and ideology, race and identity, education and hierarchy, elitism and geneticism, mobility and employment, bricks and mortar, wellbeing and misery, and advocacy and action. Most of the sections follow the same pattern: a scene-setter (often a newspaper article); then mainly articles from peer-reviewed journals; and finally a newspaper or magazine article, or occasionally a final journal article, suggesting a policy direction which might reduce inequality.

Thus the section on inequality and poverty opens with an article on murder: ‘Behind the man with the knife is … the man who decided that his school did not need funding, the man who closed down the plant where he could have worked, the man who decided to reduce benefit levels so a black economy grew …’ (p.25). Then come articles showing how economic growth is generally higher in urban areas nearer to London, and that ‘society in Britain has become so divided that very few people live anywhere where they can see how a representative range of folk live’ (p.55). Finally there’s a more political piece: ‘Cameron says he is worried about “deep poverty”, about the poorest in society. But he clearly does not want a redistribution of the money, the land, the work, the educational resources and the “opportunities” that the rich have expropriated from the poor over the past three decades’ (p.59).

There are two respects in which the introduction isn’t quite accurate. Dorling claims that he’s edited the articles and extracts so that they have a consistent style, but there is still a considerable difference between the style of an article written for the Guardian and one written for the peer-reviewed Local Economy. The introduction also says that each section ends with a discussion of what we can do about the inequality evidenced. In many of the sections this is only true in the sense that Dorling asks that a current policy trend should be reversed. In just one section he proposes a new policy direction: a land tax (p.129). I suspect that this is because he’s a geographer and has studied our unequal land distribution and the many other ways in which ‘place … matters in what might inspire (or condition) you. Circumstances matter’ (p.343), and where we grow up has a considerable effect on our opportunities and prospects. In the same vein, Dorling shows how recent Housing Benefit changes will result in ‘the cleansing and clearing out of so many poorer people (and people made newly poor) from more prosperous areas of the country’ (p.99).

As well as being Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, Dorling is President of the Society of Cartographers, and this book would be worth buying simply for the full-colour maps which say more about inequality than words alone could say. However, the main reason for buying this book has to be the sheer variety of evidence which it offers for an increasing social malaise. We are sleepwalking into a seriously unequal society. A land tax would help to reduce that inequality. To distribute the proceeds as a Citizen’s Income would make even more of a positive difference.