Inequality is a strategic risk for the UK
So, the armed forces are being deployed to cover striking ambulance drivers and border staff over the festive period. The government is invoking ‘military aid to the civil authorities’. The nation’s security forces are being roped in to help deal with a problem that is caused by inequality as well as by inflation and other forces.
There is a large group of people who worry about security threats. And there is another large group who are preoccupied by inequality, poverty, human rights and the like. When it comes to international issues, there’s an overlap in the Venn diagram. I worked for a time on the DFID Iraq desk (when DFID still existed), alongside people from the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere. The two groups (security people and development people) have learned how to talk to each other and, more or less, how to work together, because they recognise the interdependencies and shared interests.
In those heady days (the mid-2000s) when we had the luxury of worrying about the presence or absence of joined-up government, a lot of attention was paid to the concept of policy coherence for development. This was the idea that a country (like the UK) that is trying to achieve development outcomes in other countries (e.g. in sub-Saharan Africa) should ideally try to stop making things worse in those same countries though its other policies (investment, trade, arms exports, climate impacts, etc). The Centre for Global Development ranks countries on their performance in this regard in its annual Commitment to Development Index.
Amazingly, the UK still ranked fifth in the 2021 iteration of the index, despite having shifted from foregrounding international development objectives in the 2000s and early 2010s towards subordinating them to economic and geopolitical objectives in recent years. Four years ago, joined-up government morphed into fusion doctrine in the UK. Owen Barder wrote at the time about how this defence-led process could relegate development goals to the back of the queue by requiring that “all the levers at the government’s disposal, including aid, should be available to secure the government’s economic, security, and influence goals”. Since then we have seen this process play out. One example is the increasing proportion of the UK’s shrinking overseas aid budget spent in the UK on hosting refugees and asylum-seekers.
So, the balance has tilted on the international stage between the UK’s development objectives and its economic and security objectives, to the detriment of the former. Much of this, of course, has to do with the need to compensate for the economic damage done by Brexit by promoting the idea of ‘Global Britain’.
What about in the domestic sphere? Who is thinking about the relationship between our pursuit of economic and security goals, and the domestic equivalent of international development - i.e. improving people’s wellbeing, prospects and living conditions?
There’s a healthy debate afoot on the relationship between economic growth and inequality, for sure. We wrote about this in October, during the Truss-Kwarteng fever dream, arguing that reducing inequality is a prerequisite for economic growth.
But when it comes to the links between inequality and security, there’s a void, a silence. In the UK, people working on these two issues don’t talk to each other much. They don’t even speak the same language. You don’t often hear people talk about ‘contingency planning with an intersectional lens’. Maybe they should.
Another of my jobs in government (also in the mid-2000s) was representing the Department of Health on the cross-departmental working groups that produced the annual National Risk Assessment (NRA). This secret document is produced every year through a process coordinated by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat at the Cabinet Office. In recent years it has been accompanied by the National Risk Register (NRR), a heavily redacted public version.
The NRA/NRR covers a wide range of risks, including various types of terrorist attack, accidents, environmental hazards, natural disasters, and health risks such as pandemics. It divides risks into ‘hazards’ (“natural events without malicious intent”) and ‘threats’ (events with malicious intent, such as terrorism). I’m not sure that this bifurcation is helpful. It doesn’t encourage planners to think about non-malicious risks that are not ’forces of nature’ or ‘acts of god’ like floods or pandemics. Sure, climate-induced risks are in there, as are industrial accidents and system failures. So are strikes, and social unrest. But when it comes to reducing the likelihood of those risks occurring, the focus is on practical and superficial steps - such as negotiating to avoid strikes, or police monitoring to prevent public disorder. There’s no thought given to addressing the deeper systemic drivers of those risks - the issues that are causing people to strike or riot in the first place.
This is perhaps understandable given the limited remit given to the civil servants tasked with this job. They don’t have a licence to call for dramatic reductions in inequality in order to protect (and repair) social cohesion and the health of democracy in the UK (to say nothing of the impacts on the economy), thereby slowing or reversing the increasing likelihood and impact of these risks over the coming years. But maybe they should. Maybe we need to bring these two worlds together. I’m guessing that the fine people of the Cabinet Office Equality Hub are rarely troubled by their colleagues and neighbours at the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, but I can’t help thinking that there are fertile conversations to be had.
This is true across government and across all sectors of society. People who worry about risk and people who worry about inequality should be engaging with each other. Some people in the private sector get it. KPMG published a report this year about social inequality as a business risk, arguing that it “limits productivity and has the potential to constrain consumer spending and growth, destabilize supply chains, trigger political instability, and jeopardize their social license to operate.”
And there’s a broader point about a failure to think strategically and proactively about the pursuit of long-term goals. A critique of the NRR by the Royal United Services Institute argues that it doesn’t “include threats to plans and opportunities, or the risks to the achievement of the country’s goals”. RUSI suggest examples of risks that should be included in this category, such as the failure to invent the right things, or the break-up of the countries of the UK. I would add to this list the failure to tackle inequality. The government should be doing a much better job of identifying and proactively mitigating long term risks. Chief among these are climate breakdown, social fragmentation, economic inequality, democratic decline. These are all both risks in themselves and drivers of other risks. It’s a shame that the report of the Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee last year didn’t pursue this line of enquiry.
In summary, increasing inequality - whether that is wealth, income, social, racial, gender or regional inequality, or any other form - presents a series of strategic risks to the UK’s society, economy and democracy. And yet the processes by which the UK government assesses and mitigates strategic risks do not take this into account. There is a blind spot, and it needs to be addressed urgently. Including inequality-related risks in broader risk management would have huge benefits for society.
To balance out all the doom and gloom, we also need a positive vision of the future to build towards, based on a shared vision of what society should look like. We need to show that today’s problems are solvable and that tomorrow’s risks are preventable. There’s plenty of public support for active intervention by government on both fronts. And we think that fairness can form the basis of the shared vision that can increase that support further. More to follow on that next year… In the meantime, all best wishes for a happy Christmas and a restful break!
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