The cover art for Shattered Nation shows an empty supermarket trolley

Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State (Verso Books) by Danny Dorling

The fundamental concept of social geography is seemingly simple. If you look at the map of most cities, there are certain lines – sometimes easy to pick out, like a river, a park or a hill, and sometimes as subtle as a postcode change – that demarcate a rather remarkable shift: for some reason, people living on one side of this line are much richer than those living on the other.

Danny Dorling, a professor at the University of Oxford, has devoted his career to explaining the reasons this might be so. Raised in Oxford, he watched his town go from being fairly homogeneous in economic terms in the early 1970s to one where “the neighbourhood that once had the cheapest private housing – where the majority of homes were originally owned by car-factory workers – is now too expensive for most university academics to afford”.

Dorling’s Shattered Nation starts from his home streets, finding them full of shocking levels of homelessness where there used to be almost none, and a growing divide between the international class of the super-rich that sends its children to be educated at the university, and a local population whose fortunes increasingly reflect those of the most deprived towns and cities found on these islands.

The book doesn’t depart much from Dorling’s previous work. The collection of harrowing anecdotes mixed in with a wealth of data extends the legacy of rigorous examination of social issues found in books like Inequality and the 1% (2014).

But Shattered Nation comes at a critical point in time: following the 2008 financial crisis and 13 years of Conservative governments, the book captures the picture of a nation that feels hopelessly broken. It’s evident all around us: the gutted public services, the crumbling infrastructure and the bankrupt councils forced to sell their assets – from public libraries and children’s centres to what remained of their housing stock (as Slough did in 2022). Now, those lines on the map are becoming blurry. The decline is coming for everyone but the very richest.

Dorling argues in Shattered Nation that we are witnessing the “Americanisation” of the British economy, with the degradation of public services, and the consequent rise in inequality following the patterns that the US saw in the second half of the 20th century. In Dorling’s opinion, this is not the fault of the Conservatives alone. From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, the book traces the fiscal and social policy choices that brought us to where we are today. But the effects of the David Cameron government’s austerity policies enacted after 2010 are central, he says, to the breaking of the British state.

The book brings together stories from across the four nations. There is a particular emphasis on the housing crisis, which has only become more pronounced since and now threatens to engulf the middle classes – a development that the book predicts with some clarity, warning that even those asset owners that the state has done the most to protect will find themselves the victims of rentier capitalism run amok.

But perhaps the most important insight of the book comes later, and it’s one that might be hard to stomach: the effects on the psyche of the people living through this country’s decline. We may be faced with what might be described as a manifestation of collective bad character, as “gross inequality creates destructive uncaring competitiveness”. This is a dynamic Dorling describes as founded in anxiety as much as greed, as those who are “wealthy but fearful” feel that “there is never enough money to guarantee financial security.”

Is the damage too deep to reverse? Dorling has argued elsewhere that Britain is actually witnessing “peak inequality” and things should eventually start showing signs of improvement. First, however, we’d have to admit that the picture that Shattered Nation paints is real. And that admission, if it comes, will be a painful one.

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.