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Shattered Nation – review

Dorling’s book offers a damning portrait of a crumbling Britain, writes Phil O’Sullivan

6 to 8 minute read

A former public baths and wash house in London now boarded up and abandoned

Title: Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State

Author: Danny Dorling

Publisher: Verso

Year: 2023

Danny Dorling’s Shattered Nation paints a picture of a country that is defined by its contradictions. Towns and cities that have been traditionally seen as affluent containing significant levels of inequality. A country in which families struggle to afford the basic necessities, while simultaneously bombarded with advertisements promoting excessive consumption. A country that historically lorded itself for producing the largest proportion of the world’s power leaving citizens to freeze in their homes.

Despite this, there is a lingering sense in the public discourse that there is some sort of quintessentially British resilience that will override all of these flash-in-the-pan problems and bring us back to some imagined glorious past. Whether it be the load-bearing beam around which so much of the pro-Brexit narrative was constructed, or Rishi Sunak’s obsession with stopping the boats, the story seems to be repeated again and again that there is something that ‘we’ have, that ‘they’ want.

Whether it be a belief that our education or healthcare systems are world-class, or that people would risk life and limb to live on the pittance afforded to those under the care of our welfare system, the concept of Britain’s superiority is a useful and pervasive tool. In a country in which austerity politics has seen the return of Victorian diseases such as rickets and the reduction of the average heights of our children due to poor nutrition, the hypocrisy of these narratives has never been more startling.

Dorling sees nostalgia as a key rhetorical element used to add credence to the stories we are told, and tell ourselves, about a nation which by all objective metrics has severely lost its way. The book goes on to shatter many of the remaining illusions we may still hold about life in the UK. The first subject Dorling takes aim at is this nostalgia and national story-making itself. This sets the stage for a sweeping tour of a nexus of crises spanning food and housing insecurity, fuel poverty, the welfare state and privatisation.

Shattered illusions

I’m a fuel poverty and debt caseworker coordinator. I have been witnessing first-hand a public, and a sector, on its knees. Our service feels as though it is papering over the cracks left in people’s lives by an unfit welfare state, and a mental health sector oversubscribed and underfunded. Whereas once it felt as though our team was helping people to live a little more comfortably, now it feels we are helping people to just keep going. More than ever, I talk to people who have no food in the fridge and no money for their electric meter. Increasingly, people confide in me that they’ve been thinking about suicide. For the first time, this year our organisation had to run ‘vicarious trauma’ training because of the impact this is having on our caseworkers.

Our team works in an affluent part of the UK. If you visited, you’d be forgiven for thinking the blight of austerity had hit us more gently than other places. Throughout Shattered Nation, Dorling displays how the inequality created by the political decisions of a select few has spread through the country like mould, leaving deep, hidden channels of rot that you can easily miss if you are not looking beyond the surface. Dorling weaves this thread through the whole book, coming back time and again to the ‘parallel lives’ of people in the UK and the inability of the ‘haves’ to understand the new levels of destitution being experienced by the ‘have-nots.’

Dorling uses a startlingly broad mix of statistical and anecdotal evidence to trace the ideologically fuelled dismantling of the system that was designed to keep people from these levels of destitution. In doing so he reveals the true extent of the cracks that now permeate every aspect of British public life.

The giants

Some of Dorling’s early work involved using demographic data to create heat maps of levels of deprivation, as was done in specific localities by Victorian social reformers. He keeps an eye on this history throughout Shattered Nation, placing his modern work in conversation with the work of the Rowntrees, the industrialists and social reformers.

He updates the ‘five giants of social evil’ – idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want – cited by William Beveridge in his 1942 report, which laid the groundwork for the UK’s welfare state. These form the core structure for the book, as Dorling looks in turn at our modern version of these evils: hunger, precarity, waste, exploitation and fear.

The story Dorling tells is of the quiet violence of a state that has broken its contract with its citizens

This very scope at times feels like a limiting factor for the book, covering a range of topics so broad that it feels as though you are only skimming the surface. The book engages only briefly with the concept of ‘equality’ as encompassing the experiences of women and people of colour, taking the narrower view of equality being a specifically economic issue. Dorling makes some passing references to how the 1960s and early 70s were the statistically most ‘equal’ times in Britain’s history without really engaging with the interplay of race, gender and related issues.

A map of where we are

Formerly a housing researcher, Dorling presents solutions on the subject that are some of his most creative and specific. Other sections can sometimes fall into making broad suggestions which, while entirely sensible in their spirit, do not engage fully with the political feasibility or reality of his proposed reforms. As the dilution of Michael Gove’s renters’ reform bill shows, even for an establishment insider, making these kinds of reforms is not simply a matter of having sensible ideas and the will to implement them.

But Shattered Nation does not present itself as a piece of work focused on solutions. It rather comes across as a sprawling record, giving the reader the raw data to process the sometimes vague, and often poorly articulated sense that something has gone very wrong. Having watched the day-to-day impacts of this failure on the people in my community, it is heartening to see the situation laid out plainly. Even having witnessed the impacts of austerity politics first-hand, I was taken aback by some of Dorling’s statistical detective work and its implications.

The story Dorling tells is of the quiet violence of a state that has broken its contract with its citizens. One in which the active pursuit of an ideological agenda has protected the opulent lives of a select few at the dire expense of everyone else. The central lie of neoliberal politics has always been that dismantling the state and outsourcing its running to private companies will lead to better outcomes for all. Dorling manages to go beyond ideology and sentiment to expose this lie and its consequences.

The picture of decline that Dorling illustrates is not simply one of chance and circumstance, but ideology and decision-making masked behind the power of our national storytelling. He leaves you with the sense that the sooner as a society we put aside our rose-tinted, ideologically infused illusions, the sooner we can begin to build something that works.

I can see Shattered Nation becoming a widely referenced historical document. One which, hopefully, we will look back on with horror at the impacts of Conservative ideology.

Crunching the numbers

  • 22 per cent of people in the UK were living in poverty in 2021/22 (the last year government statistics were available), according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • This included 8.1 million working age adults, 4.2 million children and 2.1 million pensioners. Almost half were living in what is known as ‘deep poverty’, with income far below the standard poverty line
  • These shameful figures will only increase. They’re yet to reflect the cost-of-living crisis, soaring energy bills and the Liz Truss mini-budget that sent a wrecking ball through the UK economy
  • Britain has become a nation of deeply entrenched deprivation. There are now more than 2,500 foodbanks, and over 6,000 registered warm spaces, set up to stop people starving and freezing
  • The Conservatives have held power for 14 years. In that time, they’ve destroyed untold numbers of lives, without care for the people or communities behind the numbers

This article first appeared in Issue #243 Palestine. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Phil O’Sullivan is a fuel poverty and debt caseworker coordinator

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