Earlier this week Friends of the Earth Scotland and the University of Edinburgh Business School brought Richard Wilkinson – co-author with Kate Pickett of The Spirit Level – to Edinburgh to give our second annual lecture. As I walked over with Richard to the lecture theatre, dozens of people were queueing outside.

Richard Wilkinson. Photo: Vincent Johnston, jinja-ninja.com

Inside 250 people were crammed into a lecture theatre and at least 30 more had to be turned away ticketless: unfortunately health and safety considerations prevented us letting them in. Those who got inside were treated to a tour-de-force performance. Richard and Kate have given over 400 talks since their best-seller was published. Not surprisingly Richard needed no notes, but the material still sounded fresh and engaging.

For those who missed it, or who simply want to listen again to catch the nuances and detail, the lecture is available as a pod-cast. So I’m not going to repeat everything he said here, but just offer few summary points.

He took us on a crystal clear, yet whirlwind tour of the evidence for a host of social and health problems being closely related to, and most likely caused by excessive inequality within rich societies. More equal societies perform better all the way across the social spectrum: even the richest ten per cent in the most equal countries exhibit better health than the equivalent group in unequal countries: although the poorest groups show the most benefit.

The full lecture theatre. Photo Vincent Johnston, jinja-ninja.com

From mental health to teenage pregnancies the evidence is overwhelming – and backed by multiple peer-reviewed papers. Richard however didn’t simply dismiss the critics from the tea-party wing of politics who have attacked his work: he carefully demolished their unfounded arguments. In particular he explained how the same effects appear in comparisons of US states, thus eliminating any suspicion that the effects are culturally determined.

Then he turned to the links with the environment – with a particularly intriguing graph showing how more equal societies give more foreign aid: a key indicator of the concern for the common good, and global solidarity that will be needed to tackle climate change. But he didn’t stop there, daring instead to take on the elephant in the room, explaining how inequality drives status consumption and economic growth to the detriment of health and environment alike.

Jim Mather, Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, was brave enough to take on the challenge of responding, and offered a erudite analysis of how modern capitalism fails to deliver the common good. Perhaps unsurprisingly several challenging questions were addressed to him subsequently by audience members who saw contradictions between his remarks and the official policies of the Scottish Government. We trust he will give appropriate feedback to his colleagues.

Lesley Riddoch, Duncan McLaren, Jim Mather, Richard Wilkinson. Photo Vincent Johnston, jinja-ninja.com

The audience were also keen to engage Richard with questions, and animated discussion continued on into the following reception, where

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Richard remained ringed by eager listeners until we spirited him away for the supper his ‘singing’ had earned him many times over.

Our thanks go to Richard, Jim, Lesley Riddoch for ably chairing the event, and to the Edinburgh University Business School for hosting it.