The Politics of Measurement: Knowledge about Economic Inequality in the United Kingdom and Beyond since 1945

If you had a conversation about the growing gap between rich and poor almost anywhere in today’s world, you would very likely refer to “the top one percent,” a phrase that evokes the skyrocketing wealth of the superrich. A similar conversation in West Germany in the 1970s or 1980s would have revolved around the latest movements in wage earners’ aggregate share of the national income, evoking images of a society divided into employers and employees. In 1980s Britain, you might have talked about income growth among the bottom tenth of the population, as the government tried to steer the discussion away from income relativities and overall inequality.

The ways we speak and think about inequality and society more generally are clearly influenced by statistical measures and the ways they have been constructed. Governments have used numbers to promote their policies, and statistical knowledge or non-knowledge has shaped intellectual ideas, public debates and popular understandings of redistribution, social justice, and capitalism.1 Statistics are deeply enshrined in our political culture, and inequality knowledge is a contingent building block of what Thomas Piketty calls the “ideology of inequality.”

Series: Exploring Knowledge in Political History
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Upswings and Downturns

Today we know more than ever about economic inequality, but this is a rather recent development and far from a straightforward story. As leading scholars in the field have observed, interest in economic inequality remained low from 1945 to the mid-1960s, surged in the 1970s, followed by a decline during the 1980s and a resurgence in the next two decades.2

These upswings and downturns were accompanied by changes in conceptions, measurements, and representations of economic inequality. Furthermore, developments varied by country because they were mostly left to national statistical offices. Global convergence remained limited until the 1990s. What drove these trajectories was not primarily the knowledge itself but instead the changing institutional and political contexts of this knowledge.

Knowledge in Context

In recent years, scholars from various disciplines have been rediscovering statistical knowledge about economic inequality as a field of research.3 Much inspiration comes from the scholarship on poverty knowledge, and ground-breaking studies like Alice O’Connor’s work on the United States4 have made the importance of political contexts very clear. The lack of public debates about rising inequality in the United States during the 1980s was not due to a lack of expert knowledge or official statistics but to the efforts of well-organised conservative networks who shaped popular understandings of existing knowledge.

The production and circulation of knowledge is obviously not the exclusive preserve of scholars. It depends on the interactions and power relations of a much broader range of actors.5 For my analysis, I rely on the sociological concept of knowledge regimes, which describe constellations of practices, norms and actors in a specific area of knowledge.6 A related analytical term is the concept of knowledge politics, which captures efforts aimed at the stabilization or transformation of a given knowledge regime.7 This is not to deny the importance of books and ideas but rather to highlight the changing national and global frameworks governing the production and circulation of knowledge.

The Postwar Knowledge Regime

In the case of the United Kingdom, we can distinguish three broad phases before the present-day knowledge regime in the field of economic inequality began to crystallize in the 1990s. To start with, the first two decades of the postwar era were characterized by almost unmatched control of the state over the numbers. The community of academic experts specializing in income and wealth distribution was relatively small and public interest remained limited. The creation of statistics on income distribution and the ground-breaking redistribution analyses was the work of progressive government statisticians in the Central Statistical Office (CSO), notably John Leonard Nicholson’s.

At first, however, their statistical knowledge circulated only within the state bureaucracy. The CSO traced movements in inequality over time for internal governing purposes, but findings were not published until the early 1960s, and the published statistics were hard for nonspecialists to read. This situation left all the more scope for political narratives about the “affluent society” and “the great transformation,” which exaggerated the extent of redistribution through the welfare state, much like the U.S. postwar myth of the “income revolution” did.

Rediscovering Poverty and Inequality

A transformative moment arrived in the mid-1960s, as actors outside the government gained influence and public interest in the subject surged. In 1965, an academic book by Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith put poverty back on the political agenda, and scholars like Townsend became active anti-poverty campaigners.8 Furthermore, the advent of anti-poverty NGOs such as the Child Poverty Action Group changed the political landscape in Britain. But while the focus remained on poverty, overall income and wealth distribution was neglected.

In the early and mid-1970s, attention shifted to the “discovery of inequality,” which received unprecedented media coverage. In 1974, the incoming Labour government set up the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth (RCDIW) to improve the knowledge base in the debate about redistribution.9 The RCDIW led to a number of advances, including more comprehensible forms of graphical representation that popularized the figure of the top 1 per cent.10 The commission stood for a participatory knowledge regime. It heard testimonies from all sides of the debate, and the government drew in more academic expertise than ever. In the end, however, the civil service remained in control. When priorities shifted in the late 1970s, a few men in the CSO killed off the project of a new wealth survey, which the RCDIW had regarded as one of the most pressing concerns.

Thatcher and the Rollback of Inequality Knowledge

The late 1970s already foreshadowed the rollback under the Thatcher governments, a story that offers a prime example of knowledge politics designed to transform an existing knowledge regime. Her first government moved quickly to abolish the RCDIW and cut back all major statistical series on income, wealth, and poverty—from annual publication to two- or even three-year intervals. Added delays made sure that no up-to-date statistics were available during general election campaigns.

In response to the increasing poverty count and growing criticism, the administration even intervened in the construction of official statistics. In 1986/88, it scrapped the main statistical series on poverty, the Low Income Family Tables (LIFT), and replaced it with a new series, Households Below Average Income (HBAI)—not least because the LIFT were based on the concept of relative poverty, while the New Right insisted on absolute poverty as a yardstick.11 One of the civil servants who engineered the changes explained in an internal note that with this move, “the government shifted the basis of the ‘poverty’ debate on to grounds of their choosing” and “took away the poverty lobby’s favorite propaganda instrument,”12

The government used the new HBAI statistics to bolster their denial of poverty, and Thatcherite knowledge politics largely succeeded in marginalizing poverty as a political issue. But the backlash eventually broke the government’s monopoly on statistical knowledge. In 1989, a coalition of opponents led by Labour MP Frank Field got the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) involved, which soon discovered errors in the HBAI statistics. In 1991, the government was eventually forced into a cooperation with the IFS and granted full access to the data—a watershed moment in the transition to the present-day knowledge regime, with more involvement than ever before from academics and civil society as a whole. One of the predominant yardsticks in the, twenty-first century, the child poverty measure, was reluctantly introduced by the New Labour government in 1999, after civil servants advised that there was no way around it, as “pressure groups, external researchers and EU reports” were already using it.13

Delayed Globalization

The 1990s also saw the long-delayed internationalization of the knowledge regime, after British governments had continuously worked to restrict it to the nation-state. In the 1960s, the first attempt by the UN to develop global standards in the measurement of income distribution met with reluctance from the British and other member states, resulted only in non-binding guidelines in 1972. During the 1970s, Britain led the opposition against the Social Indicators program of the OECD, which was consequently watered down to a research exercise. From the 1970s to the 1990s, British civil servants also lobbied against the anti-poverty programs of the European Community / Union.

One official explained the strategy in an internal note as follows: “Over all these years … one of our concerns has been to try to put off the day when international social reporting would result in league tables, providing possible fuel to UK social expenditure lobbies.”14 As a consequence, international harmonization and cross-country comparisons of domestic inequality were put off until the 1990s, when the deadlock was broken by an independent research institute, the Luxembourg Income Study.

Today’s globalized knowledge regime has enabled academics, activists, and the media, to turn the figure of the top 1 per cent into a global buzzword.15 Over much of the twentieth century, however, governments and civil servants remained the principal producers and custodians of statistical inequality knowledge, with significant implications for how questions of inequality were considered or marginalized in decision-making processes and public debates.

Felix Römer is a Max Weber research fellow at the Chair for Social and Economic History, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

  1. See Jim Tomlinson, Managing the Economy, Managing the People: Narratives of Economic Life in Britain from Beveridge to Brexit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Pedro Ramos Pinto, “The Inequality Debate: Why Now, Why like This?,” Items, September 20, 2016,; and Daniel Zamora, “Should We Care about Inequality?,” Jacobin, November 2018, ↩︎
  2. Anthony B, Atkinson and François Bourguignon, eds., Handbook of Income Distribution, vol. 1 (Amsterdam: North Holland, 2000). ↩︎
  3. See, for example, the activities described in “Tracking Inequality in India: The Story of a Pioneer,” University of Cambridge, July 4, 2017, ↩︎
  4. Alice O'Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). ↩︎
  5. See Johan Östling et al., eds., Circulation of Knowledge: Explorations in the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2018). ↩︎
  6. Peter Wehling, “Wissensregime,” in Handbuch Wissenssoziologie und Wissensforschung, ed. Rainer Schützeichel (Constance: UVK Verlag, 2007), 704–12. ↩︎
  7. Peter Wehling, “Wissenspolitik”, in ibid., 694–703. ↩︎
  8. Ian Gazeley et al., “The Poor and the Poorest, 50 Years On: Evidence from British Household Expenditure Surveys of the 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, ser. A, vol. 180, no. 2(2017): 455–74. ↩︎
  9. Tom Kelsey, “An Unexpected Cut: Revisiting the Diamond Commission and Assessing Inequality in Post-War Britain,” Resolution Foundation, August 10, 2018, ↩︎
  10. “Rich get Poorer and Poor Richer,” Daily Mail, October 22, 1976. ↩︎
  11. Kevin Hickson, The Political Thought of the Conservative Party since 1945 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). ↩︎
  12. Department of Social Security, Williams to Allsop, October 13, 1989, The National Archive (TNA), JB 4/178/2. ↩︎
  13. Department of Social Security, Harris to Rookes, May 5, 1998, TNA, BN 146/428. ↩︎
  14. Treasury, Halley to Butler, June 13, 1977, TNA, T 371/505. ↩︎
  15. Pinto, “Inequality Debate.” ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Felix Römer, “The Politics of Measurement: Knowledge about Economic Inequality in the United Kingdom and Beyond since 1945,” History of Knowledge, June 2, 2019,