Britain remains a country where the concentration of wealth is still one of the highest in the world. This is a fact that has significance for all societies of the capitalist type. After all, Britain has had one of the strongest Labour movements of any advanced capitalist country. The fifth Labour Government now enjoys office, while the British trade unions, unlike their counterparts on the continent, are not divided on political or religious lines. The experience of two world wars provided particularly favourable contexts for reformist action as did the general advance to prosperity of the economy. Yet the relative positions of the major social classes have not changed in this century. Britain today is not a significantly more equal society than when the Labour Party was brought into existence by the unions over sixty years ago. In the intervening period the Labour movement has succeeded in maintaining but not improving the relative economic position of those it represents. In certain favourable conjunctures it has been able to win particular, notable advances, such as the Health Service, only to see them eroded in the subsequent period.

The British labour movement has always drawn back from a serious confrontation with the power of private capital. Whether during the General Strike of 1926, or the Labour Government of 1945–51, at the decisive moment caution prevailed. Thus the forces making for social inequality remained, and remain, unscathed. Private property, installed at the heart of the productive system, survived to generate the inequalities displayed below.

Two recent investigations give us a picture of the distribution of private wealth in contemporary Britain. According to estimates published in The Economist the richest 7 per cent of the population owned 84 per cent of all private wealth, while the richest 2 per cent accounted for 55 per cent of the total.footnote1 Very similar conclusions were reached by J. R. S. Revell of Cambridge University who estimated that the top 5 per cent of the population owned 75 per cent of all personal property while the top 1 per cent own 42 per cent of all such property. The results of both studies are summarized in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1; The Distribution of Personal Wealthin the U.K.footnote2

Table 2; The Distribution of Personal Wealth in U.K. 1959/60.footnote3