ON Tuesday, AL Ken-nedy described her ideal audience. It would be, she said, like the one she recently read to at a Doctor Who convention, all long scarves and innocence and so much so like benign visitors from another planet that she worried how they’d get home.
Inside the tent for Danny Dorling’s event yesterday, I found my own version. They were all a bit like me, with enough grey hairs to pass for wisdom but not yet calamitously ruined. The sort who came of age in the more equal Britain of the Seventies, when both social mobility and mullets were at their height. The kind who listen to the news these days with a mounting sense of incredulity. What do you mean, we’d all have shouted at the radio last week, even the poorest teenagers in England aren’t to get any grants to go to university? What do you mean, 1,000 libraries have shut in Britain in seven years? Who asked us?
In Dorling, us angry oldies have a spokesman of eminent reasonableness to explain where it all went wrong. His thesis is all there in his new book’s title – Inequality and the 1%. I should warn you that I’m biased, because it makes perfect sense to me.
In the 1970s, he said, the top one per cent took a third less of the national income than their successors do today. Back then, their number included head teachers and doctors and they were spread all over the country. No more. These days, said Dorling, you wouldn’t even get make the grade if you had a salary of £160,000, and even those earning more could find themselves struggling to live comfortably in London (where, of course, they nearly all live) and paying their private school fees. The French upper middles, despite paying much higher taxes, end up with much more disposable income than our lot.
One statistic Dorling unveiled sounded so improbable that his audience winced when they heard it. Drag salaries of the top 10 per cent back to what they were in the Seventies, and it would be enough to pay for jobs for a million of our young unemployed not just once but 15 times over. Ah, said chair Allan Little, but what about a rising tide lifting all boats? Really? countered Dorling. Then explain why in the whole of Japan there are fewer people earning more than £1 million than in the Canary Wharf alone. Imagine how many cashiers’ jobs a banker increasing his salary from, say, £4m to £6m would create. Incidentally, he added, the argument for heavy taxes on such preposterous levels of income wasn’t to raise money for the Treasury, but by curbing such greed, to save the bank and the country from its consequences.
In devil’s advocate mode, Little made the Thatcherite case against the Seventies. They weren’t that bad, Dorling countered: the oil price rise hit every European country, but it was just that our own postimperial slide from being a world power made them seem worse than they were. Old money sailed through, of course, not least the wealth of so many top Tories (Osborne, Cameron, etc), which did, indeed, date from the heady days of Empire.
At this point, the gods of Charlotte Square ought to have brought Ferdinand Mount to the stage to join the debate.
Mount is a fascinating man: the head of Mrs T’s No 10 Policy Unit, yet an independent thinker (and a fine novelist) too: in his last book, The Few, he even made an impressive critique of the super-rich from the Right. Mount did appear, but only in the next event, and with his new book, The Tears of the Rajas, which charts the deeds – and misdeeds – in India, of his ancestors, the Low family, from Clatto in Fife.
He hadn’t, he said, known much about their links with India until his daughter married Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. Just before he flew to India for the wedding, a newspaper highlighted the role his ancestor – also David Cameron’s great-great grandfather – played in the bloody repression of the Indian Mutiny. For all the faults of our one per cent, at least they tend not to get mixed up in war crimes these days.