Brian Wilson: Gap grows as the rich get richer

The chasm between rich and poor was discussed by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson in Channel 4's Dispatches. Picture: Contributed
The chasm between rich and poor was discussed by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson in Channel 4's Dispatches. Picture: Contributed
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SINCE 2008 the wealthy have become even better off while more people are caught in the poverty trap, writes Brian Wilson.

I have been on the other side of the world for the past week and fear that I have caught only the outer ripples of obsequies to the departed leader. Maybe the time difference had an effect, but the valedictory addresses to a tearful nation seemed to flow at the rate of two a day.

Thankfully, the hated BBC’s tribute was in the hands of an approved commentator, so I am assured that the tone was suitably respectful, giving no cause for demonstrations by the faithful at Pacific Quay.

Another downside of travel was that I found myself awake in the early hours of yesterday morning and, for the first time in years, listening to the interminable discussion which precedes the announcement of a by-election result, Mr Andrew Neil presiding.

Around 3am their chap at the count said a declaration was due shortly – but it was from a council by-election in The Hoo. There was no way the yeoman enumerators of Kent were to be hurried and the arrival of Nigel Farage finally persuaded me that it was worth one more attempt at sleep.

By then I had done some channel-hopping, as Channel 4 repeated the Dispatches programme in which Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator and something of a Tory thinker, pondered the fact that the wealth gap between very rich and poor has increased dramatically since the crash of 2008 – not perhaps a great revelation.

He revisited the street in Springboig where his father grew up as well as assorted Lamborghini dealers and estate agents in London. Every statistic about life expectancy, educational achievement and wealth distribution reinforced the basic contention. But his conclusions about the evils of state intervention owed less to the evidence than to his ideological starting point.

I was awake again for the Rochester declaration and a curious speech from Mark Reckless, victorious Ukip candidate and until recently a Tory MP. The language was not the right-wing odd-ballery with which Ukip is associated. Instead, he laid claim to the working-class tradition of radicalism, liberalism and even the Levellers, the 17th-century movement against patronage, corruption and religious intolerance.

Maybe this was an attempt to widen Ukip’s appeal, if only to those still watching at half past four in the morning. It certainly owed little to the usual Farage script. Or perhaps it was just evidence of Ukip’s potential to be the party of all things to all men and women, much as the SNP has been in Scotland, reinforced by a prevailing mood of political disenchantment.

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That took me back to Fraser Nelson’s programme. He interviewed two men in Rochdale – one on benefits and the other in low-paid work – from which both emerged with dignity. The former suffered from epilepsy and wanted a job, though he would be £90 a week worse off. The latter, on a zero-hours contract and minimum wage, might well have been better off on benefits but had a strong commitment to work. Iain Duncan Smith was trotted out to confirm that, even if his reforms happen, the marginal tax rate for earnings vis-a-vis benefits will still be 65 per cent.

The overall impression was that these two individuals were not in conflict with each other, as right-wing rhetoric would have us believe, but were both locked in the same trap of low earnings and poor prospects. In the bigger picture of a world occupied by mansions and Lamborghinis, they were two sides of the same decent, disadvantaged coin.

That is fertile territory for political creeds which identify, at a time of grinding austerity, with the disillusioned and dispossessed while offering external forces to blame. In the case of Ukip, it is the tradition of the Levellers versus immigrants and the EU. In the case of Scottish Nationalism, it is the now-hallowed tradition of “old Labour” which is laid claim to in order to be set against the evils of “London rule”.

The ability of other political parties to counter this appeal is seriously undermined by having no convincing solution to the divergence between poverty and plenty. Alistair Darling appeared on Dispatches to say that the explosion of asset-based wealth was an “unintended consequence” of quantitative easing (ie, the Bank of England printing money) which did not detract from this policy having been essential to prevent the banks from failing.

This is a perfectly rational explanation but it does not set pulses racing. But what else is there? Taxing wealth is a notoriously tricky business that rarely wins votes. Most countries that tried it have given up. Wealth is mobile and the French economist Thomas Piketty, current guru of the subject, concludes that a “global wealth tax” is required to counter the inexorable trend which capitalism dictates. Well, good luck with that.

Of course, the populist parties have no better idea of how to stop the rich getting richer or the poor relatively poorer but can easily fall back on blaming their external foes. Breaking up the United Kingdom or leaving Europe would not redistribute one penny of wealth. But this could only be proven conclusively after these objectives had been achieved so, meantime, they serve the purpose of alibi.

The SNP’s undoubted success has been to create the illusion of progressive government while doing absolutely nothing which redistributed wealth from the better-off to those communities or individuals with greatest needs. Ukip has surely noted with approval. Keep talking about the Levellers and hope nobody notices what’s in the manifesto. And above all, keep talking about a referendum.

For those who can only argue for gradual improvement through reform, the climate is not favourable. But let it never be forgotten that the last Labour government took 800,000 children out of poverty.

It was not a revolution or even as grandiose a concept as a global wealth tax. But it was about real people, real progress and it remains the best option that can honestly be offered.

Neither should it be forgotten that education is the best route out of poverty. So let’s start reversing the depressing outcome which Scotland’s unlamented education minister, Mike Russell, has presided over – reducing access to higher and further education for youngsters from low-income backgrounds.

We can surely have a consensus round the need for that to change.

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