From Middle Class Society to an Age of Inequality? Social Change and Changing Concepts of Inequality in Germany and Great Britain after 1945

Bernhard Dietz, Historisches Seminar, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Felix Römer, Deutsches Historisches Institut London
08.05.2015 - 09.05.2015
Bernhard Dietz, Historisches Seminar, Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Conference Report

The 34th Annual Meeting of the German Association for the Study of British History and Politics (ADEF) was held at the Centre for British Studies of Humboldt University of Berlin in cooperation with the German Historical Institute London. Under the title “From Middle Class Society to an Age of Inequality? Social Change and Changing Concepts of Inequality in Germany and Great Britain after 1945”, the two organisers of the conference, BERNHARD DIETZ (Mainz) and FELIX RÖMER (London) brought together German and British historians to discuss questions of social inequality from multiple perspectives.

The starting point that led to the conference was the international public debate on social inequality, with its popular narrative of a middle-class society that flourished for a generation after World War II but was only a temporary aberration of an otherwise clear and distinctive trend of rising social inequality. Yet does the story of a development from a middle class society to an age of inequality, as powerfully reinforced by Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book „Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, withstand empirical historical analysis? The conference attendees discussed this question using a broad range of case studies from Great Britain and Germany from 1945 to the present. Particular attention was paid to the various dimensions of inequality and the changing concepts and categories of social inequality and their interrelations with social and economic developments. Why was which type of social inequality seen as a problem? What identities, narratives and norms did societies produce to describe, accept, justify or fight social inequality?

In his opening keynote speech, MARTIN CHICK (Edinburgh) was unambiguous, outlining a picture of a dramatic rise in economic inequality in the 1970s and 1980s in Great Britain. After income and wealth inequality decreased during World War II and the post-war era, the 1980s in particular saw a strong polarisation of middle-income levels between high and low. Chick stressed, however, that the real problem was not inequality of income but inequality of wealth and therefore included in his analysis housing as an important source of inequality. Using the example of the “Meade Report”, which recommended a shift to a progressive expenditure tax system together with progressive taxation of wealth in 1978, Chick demonstrated how important it is to go back to the political and economic discussion of the late 1970s to understand the developments of the 1980s and 1990s. The outright dismissal of the “Meade Report” was seen by Chick as a typical reluctance of politicians to use the expertise of economists in the fight against social inequality.

In the first panel, “Politics”, FELIX RÖMER (London) used corpus linguistic analyses to trace how the concern with questions of social justice in Great Britain fluctuated over time after 1945. Römer highlighted how the debate gained new momentum in the early 1960s and how closely it was connected to questions of economic inequality, emphasizing how this came at a time of relative economic affluence and was related to issues of industrial relations and the income policies of the MacMillan and Wilson governments. Römer’s paper also traced the interdependency of political discourse on economic inequality and the statistical methods of measuring and describing income and wealth distribution.

In his comparative analysis of pension systems in Germany and Great Britain since 1945, CORNELIUS TORP (Augsburg) scrutinised the underlying concepts of social justice and stressed that the British system was based on the norms of equality and the subsistence principle, whilst the Germany system rested upon the contribution principle. Torp’s analysis of pension reforms in both counties showed how the pension systems survived the end of the post-war boom. In Britain, the SERPS-reform of 1975 established a German-style earnings-related scheme before New Labour returned to the principles of William Beveridge. In Germany, the groundbreaking reform of 1957 introduced the principle of “Lebensstandardsicherung”, which was not abandoned until the reforms of the early 2000s. Torp went on to challenge the demographic argument that served to legitimize these reforms, concluding that problems relating to means-tested benefits in the UK and the costs of the reunification in Germany deserve much more attention in this context.

The second panel, “Economics”, was opened by WENCKE METELING (Marburg) and her British-German comparison of the economic concept of „International Competitiveness“ and its political implications. She described the notion of competitiveness as an all-encompassing concept that enshrined the shift to supply-side thinking in both countries during the 1980s. She analysed how this transition was promoted by Think Tanks such as the Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft in Köln and how criticism of the obsession with competitiveness during the 1990s remained rather isolated. Consequently, the state was increasingly thought of as an enterprise, a development for which Meteling coined the term “Vertriebswirtschaftlichung”.

In his paper on managers in Germany and Great Britain, BERNHARD DIETZ (Mainz) demonstrated how, in both countries, “middle managers” became the object of a scientific and political debate in the 1970. Middle managers were “discovered” by historians, social scientists and management “experts” and “made” by their lobby organizations and representatives campaigning for their interests. This process of group-forming through organization and presentation was mainly a work of social distinction against the “normal” workforce. A key element in this development was the ideology of the “third force” between labour and capital. At the core of this ideology lay a normative concept of affirmed social inequality in which the manager as the achiever became the symbol of meritocratic society. Unlike in Germany, however, the “manager cult” in the UK moved from the public into the private sector, with far-reaching consequences.

The third panel, “Redistribution”, was opened by MARC BUGGELN (Berlin), who presented his analysis of taxation policies in Britain and Germany during the 1980s. Based on a systematic comparison of taxation systems and reforms in both countries, Buggeln investigated the question to what degree European governments adopted neoliberal principles in their tax regimes during this period. In West Germany, more far-reaching tax reforms were not only impeded by the stronger corporatist structures, but also by the opposition of Chancellor Kohl to neoliberal ideology. At the same time, Reagan and Thatcher were able to push through much more radical tax cuts, leading to marked increases in social inequality in Britain and the US during the 1980s. Nevertheless, the German government also gradually moved away from progressive taxation. Buggeln concluded that even if the 1980s saw important shifts towards more regressive taxation policies, in Europe, there was only a partial conversion of tax regimes.

JENNY PLEINEN (Augsburg) completed the third panel chronologically with her paper on taxation as a means of redistribution in the pre-Thatcher era. Pleinen analyzed the tax regime in Britain during the post-war period from multiple perspectives, discussing the significance of institutional structures, the role of civil servants, the wider political process as well as the regional dimensions of taxation policies. The recurring issues in Βritish politics were the question of just and unjust redistribution, the effects of inflation, direct versus indirect taxation, the limits of redistribution and the general relationship between taxation and the welfare state.

In the fourth and final panel, “Opportunity”, WILFRIED RUDLOFF (Kassel) examined inequality as a socio-cultural phenomenon by looking at scientific and political debates on educational inequality in England and Germany between the 1950s and the 1970s. His broad analysis ranged from the theoretical discovery of education inequality in the 1950s, questions of intelligence and ability and secondary school selection to politics of equal opportunity. Rudloff underlined the national characteristics in the justification and valuation of unequal educational opportunities that also explain why the implementation of a comprehensive school system was successful in England but not Germany.

In her case study on the development of classics (Latin and Greek) in secondary education in Germany and England, ANNA KRANZDORF (Mainz) argued that even the classicists themselves saw classical education as a barrier against advancement and educational expansion in 1960s. Different concepts for the common aim of opening up the Classics to all parts of society were pursued in each country. Where German classicists tried to preserve Latin and Greek by establishing the idea of classics being significant for pupils from all parts of society, in England, antiquity survived reforms by transforming it from a language subject into a cultural studies subject that was taught by reading English translations of classical texts. Nevertheless, classics continue to reinforce social inequality today, particularly in England: the ability to translate Latin is seen as a greater sign of a public school background and therefore of social and cultural capital than it used to be in the 1960s.

Conference Overview:

Keynote Lecture
Martin Chick (University of Edinburgh): Wider still and wider? Inequality, Wealth and Income in Britain since 1945

Bernhard Dietz (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz) and Felix Römer (GHI London)

Panel I: Politics

Felix Römer (GHI London): Concepts of Social Justice in Great Britain after 1945

Cornelius Torp (Universität Augsburg): Pension Systems and Inequality in Old Age. Germany and Great Britain since 1945

Panel II: Economics

Wencke Meteling (Philipps-Universität Marburg): „International Competitiveness“. Policy Implications of an Economic Concept in Great Britain and Germany

Bernhard Dietz (Johannes Gutenberg Universität-Mainz): New Economic Elites? Managers in Germany and Great Britain between the 1960s and 1980s

Panel III: Redistribution

Marc Buggeln (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin): Taxation Policy in Britain and Germany in the 1980s: The Change to Neoliberalism and Rising Inequality?

Jenny Pleinen (Universität Augsburg): Taxation as a Means of Redistribution in British Politics since 1945

Panel IV: Opportunity

Wilfried Rudloff (Universität Kassel): Class Structures, Socialization and Heredity: Scientific and Political Debates on Educational Inequality in England and Germany between the 1950s and the 1970s

Anna Kranzdorf (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz): A Reinforcer of Social Inequality? Classics in Secondary Education in Germany and Britain after 1945

Tagungsbericht: From Middle Class Society to an Age of Inequality? Social Change and Changing Concepts of Inequality in Germany and Great Britain after 1945, 08.05.2015 – 09.05.2015 Berlin, in: H-Soz-Kult, 26.06.2015, <>.