At some point over the summer I developed the bad habit of following Louise Mensch on Twitter. At first I just dabbled in fresh gossip regarding the hacking scandal, then hung on to see if she would apologise for false allegations made against Piers Morgan in Parliament. Before I knew it I was hooked on the constant stream of gibberish that constitutes her apparent sole contact with planet earth. I did actually overdose a few weeks ago, almost choking on my own sputum, when she Retweeted something in celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s birthday, acclaiming her as “The best PM the UK had”. Barely 24 hours later she Retweeted somebody else expressing pride at the fact “Steeltown” by the band Big Country had been written “about Corby” (Mensche’s pride in her constituency is one of her more endearing qualities). What she had singularly failed to recognise was that “Steel Town” was actually written in despair at the decimation of the steel industry in Corby some 30 years ago (leading to a 30% unemployment rate in the area) by – you guessed it – “The best PM the UK had”! I don’t buy into the need for pure rationalism and accept that human beings are inherently contradictory, but still, that was award winning!
But, the Honourable Menschster did ask one quite valid question only a week or so later; why are people suddenly bothered by inequality now when they didn’t care about it under the previous government? (Well, she put it in 140 characters, but I can’t remember the exact words.)
The answer is, I suspect, twofold.
Firstly, as I’m sure you can imagine, the premise of the question is just wrong. People did care. But, they were branded communists, loonies, the usual suspects – people who thought bin collectors and brain surgeons should be paid the same hourly wage (I’ve never heard anybody make such a claim, but that is how people concerned by inequality are often characterised). Notably, Thatcher did all she could to shut down this argument, through statement, policy and wild gesticulation in Parliament. It became accepted as the new orthodoxy under her tenure that a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’, and it mattered not if some were raised infinitely higher than others. But when New Labour took power in 1997 and Peter Mandelson declared “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” there were still a significant number of people who were anything but relaxed. This was, after all, the period which gave birth to the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement. Indeed, the reluctant icon of that wave, Naomi Klein, on the very first page of her very first book (No Logo, published in 2000) quotes Indonesian writer, Y.B. Mangunwijaya, warning that “You might not see things yet on the surface, but underground, it’s already on fire”. Well, the ground just opened up and collars are being loosened – dog collars more than white collars, but it’s early days.
(Incidentally, I think one of the most important works on inequality in the UK is actually to be found in a psychology book, ‘The Selfish Capitalist’. Published in 2008, written by Oliver James, it collects a startling array of statistics showing not only the fact of growing inequality, but also its social and individual consequences. That’s 2008. Two years before Cameron entered Number 10.)
The real question then is, not why nobody was bothered about inequality before, but, rather, why are more people bothered by it now? The answers to this question are as many and varied as the reasons for people being camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. (Theres a line I thought I’d never write!) Where to begin?
An obvious point of entry for understanding this is to be found in two monosyllabic words which have assumed an ominous meaning and have cast a dark shadow across the land since last October’s Comprehensive Spending Review; ‘The Cuts’. If it is in the nature of pure, unregulated capitalism to reward money with money and thus widen the gap between rich and poor, then it is government action which mitigates the worst effects of this; through the provision of public services (health & education, for example) to imposing a minimum wage, regulating and sometimes owning industry, providing Sure Start centres and awarding Tax Credits. Not to mention benefit payments to those who join, what Marx referred to as, the ‘Industrial Reserve Army’ – those kept out of work in order to have a deflationary effect upon wages (and thus raising profits of the capitalist). Long before John Maynard Keynes proposed ‘priming the pump’ through government spending, English settlers began dealing with poverty in Ireland by paying peasants a penny a day to build walls. Walls that enclosed nothing and achieved no worthwhile end other than putting money in the pocket of a starving individual while giving them some sense of dignity in the process. But, today, Cameron forgets that most important lesson of the Thatcher years; that to employ someone for some menial task is cheaper (after productivity and tax) than to pay their housing and costs to do nothing. It’s worth remembering that when the English in Ireland withdrew their penny a day payments the Irish Potato Famine really kicked in and claimed some significant victims. When I say some, I mean about a million. Each one significant.
The UK may not be facing a famine, but it is facing some profound changes as a result of this cut in public funding. Essentially, when a state is reduced in size, those factors which hold back inequalty are neutralised. And thus inequality accelerates. Without due care and attention or seat belts!
In 2010, before the election, Danny Dorling, who had spent years researching inequality in Britain warned that whoever won, there were going to be cuts and the likely fallout would not be pretty. “Unless there’s some kind of strange miracle, we are about to have several years of purgatory”, he said and “It’s always at these points [in history] that people get angry”.
So, why should cuts implemented by a Conservative government provoke more outrage and despair than those by a Labour government? Well, the obvious delight with which the Tory benches cheered the announcement of the cuts in October 2010 (‘more, more, more!’ they cried) did little to win them friends. And there’s the continued suspicion among voters, even in the latest polls, that the Conservative Party is the party of the rich with little or no sympathy for those most affected. As if having 23 out of 29 cabinet members being millionaires makes the government out of touch!
Finally and, I think, most significantly, the rolling back of the state, which allows capitalism to grow and flourish is allowing it to move on to its next stage. About two weeks before the Occupy Wall Street protest began (September 17th, 2011) the English political philosopher John Gray, writing for the BBC’s “A Point of View” described how even the educated middle class increasingly have no control over their destiny and “the uncertainty in which we must live is being worsened by policies devised to deal with the financial crisis”. Uncertainty is of course a feature of the modern flexible labour market, another tool which provides security for employers while robbing it from employees. Gray goes on, “The situation of many younger people is even worse. In order to acquire the skills you need, you’ll have to go into debt. Since at some point you’ll have to retrain you should try to save, but if you’re indebted from the start that’s the last thing you’ll be able to do. Whatever their age, the prospect facing most people today is a lifetime of insecurity.”
That is the bottom line. There is an increasing realisation that even people who study assiduously, work hard and save what they can, have no more security than those who don’t. As Chris Gibson-Smith, Chairman of the London Stock Exchange said in an interview on Sunday as he attempted to shift blame for the cuts and crisis onto government profligacy, “politicians, and the civil service, lost control of the system. Where has all the money gone?”
Might I suggest that Mr Gibson-Smith is hoist by his own petard? We know where the money has gone. At a time when individuals, families and government departments are tightening their belts, the Financial Times reported last week that average earnings of the directors of FTSE 100 companies has increased by 49%. Louise Mensch’s question of ‘why now?’ may be a good one, but I think a more pertinent one would be, ‘why not?’
(Links in this Article will be amended on 03/11/2011 – 22:00).