Joyce McMillan: Inequality is now our biggest threat

Rebekah Brooks, pictured leaving Southwark Crown Court in London, received a �10.8m pay-off. Picture: Getty
Rebekah Brooks, pictured leaving Southwark Crown Court in London, received a �10.8m pay-off. Picture: Getty
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STEPS must be taken to address injustice if we are to avoid social collapse and destruction, writes Joyce McMillan

‘Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud/ Christ today has poor men rais-ed/ And has cast adown the proud.” It’s a chorus written by the great designer, artist, writer and utopian socialist William Morris, towards the end of the 19th century, for his fine carol Masters In This Hall; and it captures an element in the Christmas story – the one about passionately siding with the poor, and pointing out how damn nearly impossible it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven – that has been assiduously ignored by many establishment Christians down the centuries.

Yet if ever there was a nation in need of some vigorous casting down of the proud – and of some “raising up” of almost everyone else, as we struggle to keep abreast of our food and fuel bills – then it is the UK, at this turn of the year 2012. For despite efforts in some quarters to argue that wealth differentials are being squeezed, as the coalition government increases some rates for higher earners, in fact the reverse is the case; simply because earnings at the top end of the British economy continue to romp upwards with merry abandon, while almost everyone else has to make do with static or declining real earnings, at best.

At the end of 2011, for example, figures emerged showing a general rise of 3.2 per cent in earnings, but a rise of 50 per cent in remuneration for directors of FTSE 100 companies. In 2011, the failed banking sector, comprehensively bailed out by British taxpayers, paid out some £14 billion in bonuses. And a couple of weeks ago, it emerged from the accounts of Rupert Murdoch’s News International that former chief executive Rebekah Brooks received a compensation package of £10.8 million, after she resigned as a result of the criminal proceedings against her; a sum which means that as a mere pay-off, on top of years of high salary, this silly and possibly wicked woman has received more money than most senior nurses could earn in three hundred – yes, three hundred – years.

And it’s against the backdrop of this wholesale looting of the economy by a tiny privileged class that we have to understand the rot being talked about austerity by the current British government. It used to be argued, with some force, that the wealthy are such a small group that taxing them until their pips squeak is pointless; that even if the wealthiest 1 per cent gave up all their wealth, it would only be a drop in the ocean of the national or global economy.

In this second decade of the 21st century though, the wealth of the top 1 per cent has shot up to such an extent that that has simply ceased to be true. Yesterday, for example, The Scotsman carried a story about how new mothers are set, by 2015, to lose some £180 each in benefits and allowances, under new arrangements introduced by George Osborne – a small sum, but one that will mean a lot to low-earning mothers.

Yet that cut, insofar as it affects Scottish mothers, could be wiped out for a whole year by Rebekah Brooks’s severance payment alone; or deferred for 20 years, across the whole of the UK, if the government had the nerve to claw back this year’s City bonuses, some £2.3bn.

The BBC World Service, perhaps still the world’s most respected source of broadcast news, is having to sack significant news-gathering staff, and risk its reputation for world-class journalism, in order to achieve token annual savings of less than £50m, a sum equivalent to a mere handful of top bankers’ bonuses; and as for the decision of Newcastle City Council to stop funding arts organisations altogether – well, that will save about £1.5m a year, or about an eighth of a “rebekah”, as any sum around £10m should perhaps now be known.

Nor is there much doubt in the minds of most centre-left observers that wealth inequality in the UK has reached seriously damaging levels, across our public life. The proportion of the national wealth being channelled away to offshore tax havens is fast becoming a public scandal. The incompatibility between huge wealth inequalities and a functioning system of representative democracy becomes ever more obvious, as wealthy donors buy up the allegiance of political parties and MPs.

And it is instructive, too, to try the parlour game of observing British public debate for a week or two, and trying to assess just how many voices you hear that do not come from that top 1 per cent – ie people earning £150,000 a year or more, often with a range of political views to match.

So what is to be done? Well, in the widest historical perspective, a challenge to these reactionary terms of debate is bound to come eventually, from one source or another. Human societies can only bear so much injustice and inequality before something snaps. In the 1930s, a failed approach to economic depression among European governments led eventually to the biggest and most destructive war humankind has yet seen; it took a trauma on that scale to spawn the new global finance system created at Bretton Woods, and the more equal and self-consciously egalitarian western society of the decades between 1945 and 1975.

Yet for the moment, our politics seems incapable either of transforming any existing party into a genuine movement for renewed social injustice, or of generating new movements with the organisational power to change the debate. Even the SNP, here in Scotland, tends to mince its words when it comes to challenging the cult of extreme profit and unearned privilege among 21st century leaders of business and finance. And if we want to avoid the terrible human suffering and agony implied in the phrase, “it will have to get worse before it gets better”, then we need to become much more inventive, both politically and culturally, about what may prove the key task of the first half of the 21st century: the task of moving towards a more just, democratic and sustainable global economy, without first passing through the nightmare of social collapse and destruction that history should – if we have any wisdom at all – have taught us to avoid.