Wednesday, 11 December 2013

It is shocking that we are not shocked when a politician praises greed and envy

“…some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity…” – Boris Johnson, giving the Margaret Thatcher memorial lecture on 27 November 2013.

There was a time when Boris Johnson’s comments above would have been recognised as an outrage against a shared morality and common decency. But no one seemed to pay much attention when he made them in a recent speech (although there was media interest in his crass remarks, in the same speech, about how many of our “species” [sic] have IQs below 85).

Johnson links the claimed beneficial effects of greed and envy to the operation of capitalism. It is quite astonishing that he does so only years after a worldwide economic disaster, which was caused primarily by the greed of very rich people in the finance industry in New York, London and elsewhere.

Johnson thinks envy is good because it causes people to spend money on material goods. Billions of pounds are spent annually in the UK in PR and advertising budgets in order to stimulate envy. Johnson does not seem to care that, partly as a result, private debt is now close to an all-time high nor that people motivated by envy are destined to be forever unfulfilled.  

Greed and envy have been condemned by societies worldwide for thousands of years. They are two of the Christian seven deadly sins. They are regarded as sins not only by Christianity but also by Islam, Socialism, Hinduism, Humanism, Judaism, Marxism, Buddhism and almost every other belief system which contains a moral code.

Throughout history there have, of course, always been people who have been motivated by greed and envy. However, such people have also always been aware of society’s grave disapproval and so they have invariably done whatever they could to hide the shameful truth. Hypocrisy, as has been said, is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

So how is it that in 2013 a politician’s praise for greed and envy does not shock?  It is because for thirty years we have been told that what Johnson was saying is right - even though it is very wrong. Johnson was simply articulating essential elements of Neo-Liberalism or Thatcherism.

Although, Thatcherites might not admit it, the morality of Thatcherism appears to owe a great deal to the ideas of Ayn Rand, an American who died in 1982. Rand's philosophy of hyper-individualism is highly influential today within the US in general and within the Republican Party in particular – Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate has been much influenced by her work.

Rand’s philosophy ran counter to previous moral codes. Her philosophy was summed up in the title of one of her books –“The Virtue of Selfishness”. Envy and greed were just fine by Ayn Rand. Thatcherism was all about individuals out to better themselves without being concerned for others. Thatcher notoriously declared that –“there is no such thing as society”.

Rand thought that the super-rich were heroes, who deserved to be honoured and respected purely on account of their wealth. Last month, Johnson lauded the “hedge fund kings” and proposed that the richest should receive automatic knighthoods.

For Rand the ultimate good was not society, let alone happiness, but was money. At her funeral, one of her very closest disciple, Alan Greenspan, who as head of the Federal Reserve was at the heart of the world’s financial system for 19 years, placed a six foot floral tribute in the shape of a dollar sign near her casket.

Rand and Thatcher’s ideas have had an insidious and deeply damaging effect on our culture. Once we would have known immediately that greed and envy are bad. Now we barely notice when an ignorant politician who has no idea of what is really important in life – like decency and humanity - praises two vices, which destroy the lives of other people and a person’s own soul too. 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

We should oppose evils like apartheid at the time, not when they are safely history

In Britain, the death of Nelson Mandela has been met with universal praise for his achievements and for his character, which imbued him with a moral authority unmatched by anyone else alive. 

Some of those now eulogising Mandela stand accused of hypocrisy because their attitude towards him and the apartheid regime was very different in the years before Mandela’s release in 1990. Listening to what is being said now, one might think that nobody in Britain ever supported apartheid but, of course, that is not true. Hopefully, some erstwhile apartheid supporters now sincerely regret their previous stance.

Apartheid is an example of something which is now recognised as an absolutely clear cut moral evil but which in the past a significant number of people – particularly powerful people - felt able to justify or at least not oppose. Other examples in Britain over the last two centuries include slavery, restricting the franchise to rich males, colonialism and various forms of discrimination.

Mandela said – “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  We need to be teaching our children to think, question and challenge. This would equip them to recognise such moral issues.

There are plenty of such issues facing us right now. One example, admittedly not as easy to grasp as apartheid, is the existence of abject, degrading poverty – in Britain and globally - in the midst of great wealth, which is easily more than sufficient to alleviate it. As Mandela also said – “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Mandela, who himself achieved what seemed impossible, also had something to say to those who might think the very idea of abolishing such poverty is utopian nonsense - “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Imagine that one day this injustice has been substantially addressed. Then, many people, who had supported or gone along with things as they were, would probably tell their children - “It was terrible – in Britain people were relying on food banks and many could not afford heating or were homeless. And in many countries in Africa and Asia it was far worse, people were actually starving. And all the time there was plenty of money around. I always knew it was wrong.” 

We should take inspiration from a man like Nelson Mandela and at least oppose injustice at the time when our support might actually make a difference, not when the issue has been safely consigned to the history books.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

"Angel of Woolwich" has been reduced to penury by Bedroom Tax

One of the most reprehensible actions of David Cameron’s government is that they have accompanied their attacks on the income and services of the poorest and most vulnerable with a campaign of stigmatising these same people as “scroungers”, “skivers” and as being somehow morally deficient. Only six months ago, Cameron was rightly praising Ingrid Loyau-Kennett for her quite exceptional moral fibre. Now she is a victim of his Bedroom Tax.

As the trial takes place of the two men who hacked to death Drummer Lee Rigby on a Woolwich street in May this year, spare a thought for Ingrid Loyau-Kennett. She was dubbed an “Angel of Woolwich” for her extraordinary bravery in confronting the killers. Whilst outwardly calm, she talked to them over an almost interminable ten minutes until armed police arrived. All this time the men, both blood-stained from their butchery, were holding a revolver, a meat cleaver and a long knife.

88,600 people have signed a petition calling for the George Medal, the highest award for civilian bravery, for Loyau-Kennett and for the two other “Angels of Woolwich”, Amanda Donnelly and her daughter Gemini. The petition was started by the Rector of Woolwich who said “(They) have been an inspiration to us all. Instead of running away when they saw danger they went straight to the heart of it…These acts of extraordinary humanity in the face of such horror deserve to be recognised at the highest level.”

Cameron saluted Loyau-Kennett’s courage and credited her actions with having prevented further injuries or deaths. He said people like her make the country what it is.

Six months on, the Mirror carries an article about Loyau-Kennett once more. However, this is not about a George Medal or praise from the prime minister. It’s about the Bedroom Tax. 

Loyau-Kennett lives in Cornwall and is unable to find work. Six years ago, she rented a three-bedroomed house from a Housing Association. Her son and daughter have recently moved out and so she now has two spare rooms. She tells the Mirror that she would be happy to move to a smaller property but there are none available. So, she is liable to pay the Bedroom Tax.

According to the Mirror, Loyau-Kennett was living on £58 per week before the Bedroom Tax, which then reduced her income by £21 per week – a cut of 36%.  She is now reduced to £5.28 a day for bills, food, clothes, transport etc. 

The BedroomTax is a cruel and unjust tax. The government presents it as if claimants have a choice to downsize but in the overwhelming number of cases there are no smaller properties available. It affects about 660,000 claimants of working age, almost two thirds of whom 420,000 (63%) have a disability. As these numbers do not include the claimants’ children, it is likely that at least a million people are directly affected.

I am not suggesting that Loyau-Bennett deserves better treatment than others hit by the Bedroom Tax. Her story highlights the reality of the tax for the hundreds of thousands affected by it. These people, our fellow citizens, are no more or less morally deficient than any other sector of society.  Some, like Loyau-Bennett, deserve to be honoured by society for their exceptional moral strength. 

Just as charities after a terrible disaster do not use pictures showing the suffering of many, but always the suffering of just one, so I hope the plight of this one brave woman will draw attention to the wider suffering caused by this iniquitous tax.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Three Old Etonians - the good, the patrician and the downright ugly

Sir John Major was right when he recently described the dominance of a privately educated elite in the upper echelons of public life as “truly shocking”. However, his analysis overlooks the fact that there is a pecking order between private schools. The school that undeniably rules the roost is Eton. If you are educated at Eton – where fees are £33,370 p.a. before extras - you have a far higher chance of scaling society’s heights than if you go to a “bog-standard” private school, let alone than if you are one of the benighted 93% who go to state school.

Eton has supplied the country’s leaders for centuries. More than a third of British prime ministers have been Old Etonians -19 out of 53. And the power and influence of Old Etonians shows no sign of diminishing in the Twenty First century. Their number currently includes David Cameron, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Princes William and Harry, Boris Johnson, five close advisers to the PM and the Chancellor, both inside and outside the Cabinet, and countless powerful men (it is a single sex school) in the judiciary, the media and the City.

It is wrong to pre-judge anyone because they went to a particular school – every individual should be judged by their own words and actions. Here are three very different Old Etonians – the good, the patrician and the downright ugly.

Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, is my good Old Etonian. After witnessing the injustice of colonialism when he was an imperial policeman in Burma as a young man, he turned his back on the comfortable path open to him and spent the rest of his short life (he died aged only 46) fighting against two evils – totalitarianism and poverty.  

Orwell was a socialist who wanted to improve the lot of the poor through fundamental change to the structure of society. Such ideas would have been anathema to another Old Etonian, Harold Macmillan, who was PM between 1957 and 1963. 

Macmillan was a patrician who assumed that people like him had both the right and duty to lead. The way that he, like all Tory leaders before 1965, rose to the top of their party, symbolised how society worked more widely. There was nothing as grubby as an election by MPs, let alone by party members. Tory leaders simply “emerged” from a “magic circle” of the party’s grandees. 

Macmillan was concerned about those less fortunate than himself. His worldview was deeply affected by his experience serving in the trenches, when he was wounded at the Somme; and by the misery he saw in his Stockton constituency during the Depression in the Thirties. He believed in the feudal concept of noblesse oblige which means that the privileged – whilst staying privileged – should recognise that they have an obligation, within limits, to help and respect the less privileged.

Here is an extract from a speech of Macmillan’s in 1984 attacking Margaret Thatcher’s description of striking miners as “the enemy within”. It is not possible to imagine Cameron, the 19th Old Etonian PM, speaking in these terms.

    “It breaks my heart to see…what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser's and Hitler's armies and never gave in…. Then there is the growing division of comparative prosperity in the south and the ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people.”

Cameron’s government’s odious attacks designed to smear the poor and powerless as “skivers” and “scroungers” are an example of the “new kind of wicked hatred” that Macmillan abhorred.

Cameron has only once stepped outside the rarefied worlds of Eton, Oxford and Westminster, when a relative obtained a job for him on a six figure salary as head of PR for a TV company. He has been shaped by Eton and Thatcher.

From Eton, he has had a smoothed path through life and the same sense of entitlement as Macmillan.

From Thatcherism, he has a mistaken belief that he has risen through a meritocratic process, which has made him arrogant, and he also has a hard-faced attitude towards those at the bottom of society. He has no sense of Macmillan’s noblesse oblige.

Cameron believes the Thatcherite rhetoric that anyone can succeed if they have talent and work hard enough. But this is a cruel myth. Inequality and social mobility in the UK are among the very worst in the Western world. There are exceptions, of course, but most people who are at the bottom of British society are stuck there, however hard they work.

Cameron is arrogant and heartless. He is a downright ugly Old Etonian.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The misery of the working poor – Dickensian London, sweatshops in Asia and your office.

The people who clean your office (or wherever you spend your working day) are very likely paid less than the Living Wage. They are not starving or homeless, but then neither are others who might evoke your pity - the working poor of Dickensian London or those now working in Asian sweatshops. In all three cases, low wages mean that the workers and their families live miserable, marginalised and precarious existences.

In London alone, almost 750,000 workers are paid less than the Living Wage. They are an invisible army of shop-workers, carers, cleaners and those doing the myriad of other jobs needed to keep the city working. 

According to the Resolution Foundation, there are 4.8 million workers in the UK as a whole earning less than the Living Wage, comprising 20% of the workforce. We rarely hear n our media about the issues of concern to these millions.

The Living Wage is not the same as the Minimum Wage, which is the legal minimum anyone can be paid. This is currently £6.31 per hour for those aged 21 and over and £5.03 an hour for 18 to 20 year olds. In practice, some employers get away with effectively paying even less than this by devices such as making deductions for “expenses” or by imposing zero-hour contracts. 

The Living Wage rate is significantly higher than the Minimum Wage rate. It is £7.65 per hour outside London and £8.80 per hour in London. Every year more employers are voluntarily committing to the Living Wage. Where a Living Wage employer buys in services like cleaning from a contractor, they stipulate that the cleaners must be paid the Living Wage by that contractor.

Last week a document was published by GLA Economics, with a foreword by Boris Johnson, entitled “A Fairer London: the 2013 Living wage in London.”
The mayor pays tribute to the hard work of those who “maintain the fabric of our communities and our city 24/7”. He writes that “It is morally right that their contribution is appropriately recognised…This means paying every London employee at least the London Living Wage, which provides the minimum acceptable quality of life for them and their families plus a bit more “for a rainy day”.

The Living Wage is further defined in the GLA Economics document as being what is needed to “achieve an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents.”  

The GLA document is a dry piece of work. However, a close reading gives as good a picture of the reality of life for the London working poor in 2013 as Charles Dickens’ novels give for the London working poor of the 19th century. 

The document calculates the “Basic Living Costs” for different types of families living in poverty in London e.g. for couples or singles, for those working full-time or part-time, for families with or without children. It then demonstrates that for some families, their weekly income – the Minimum Wage plus some means-tested benefit – falls well short of their “Basic Living Costs” each and every week.

Life for the poor in London has become much tougher in the last 12 months. For those in social housing, their rent has increased by 6.6% and for those in the private rented sector the increase has been between 9.3% and 12%. The increase in the Minimum Wage was only a miserly 12 pence per hour (from £6.19 to £6.31).

As we have no Dickens, we have to consider ourselves what all these figures actually mean in the lives of real people. They mean choosing between heating and eating, visits to food banks and falling into the clutches of companies like Wonga. They also mean lives of unrelenting drudgery, working all hours and being always in arrears, always in debt.

The Living Wage could significantly improve the lives of millions of workers but opponents say that it is a bad idea as it will cost jobs. Precisely the same scaremongering argument was made when the Minimum Wage was introduced in 1998, with the Tory Party leading the fierce opposition. It turned out then to be completely baseless.

It is not proposed that the Living Wage be imposed by law. There will be some businesses that genuinely cannot afford it. However, there are plenty of employers who could afford to pay the Living Wage but prefer not to do so, if they can get away with it – lower wages means, at least in the short term, more profit.

Just because a business can do something to increase profit, does not mean it should do it – that is the justification for sweatshops now and has been for slavery in the past.

In any event, Boris Johnson argues that paying the Living Wage is actually in the interest of employers. Even the hard-nosed City of London Corporation agrees. Roger Chadwick, finance committee chairman has said, “(The Corporation) believes that the additional cost (of insisting contractors pay the Living Wage) is outweighed by the demonstrable benefits in terms of staff morale, recruitment and retention.”

In London, City Hall and many councils are Living Wage employers. Within the last year, the first department in Whitehall has signed up. This breakthrough – at the Department for Work and Pensions - was achieved when over 60 cleaners signed a letter calling for a Living Wage and left it on the desk of Iain Duncan Smith. 

The idea of the Living Wage has support across the political spectrum. Its two leading political champions are Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson. 

Here is a list of the benefits of introducing the Living Wage

  •  For the workers, it would enable them to have a decent life and improve the life-chances of their children

  • For the employer, there will be a happier, less tired, more productive and more loyal workforce. Also, they can use paying the Living Wage as a marketing tool like Fair-trade and will not have to worry about reputational damage through not paying it

  • For the economy, more money in the pockets of poorer people means more money spent in local shops (more money in the pockets of the rich tends to sit in their bank)
  • For the tax-payer, there will be a substantial saving as presently Minimum Wage levels are topped up by benefits so, in effect, the employer is being subsidised. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that for every pound spent on the Living Wage, the Treasury saves 50 pence

  • This would reward “hard-working people, who do the right thing” and will “make work pay” – two oft-repeated slogans of politicians of all parties

  • This would be morally the right thing to do and would create a fairer, more decent society.

If you shudder at the misery of Dickens’ working poor, if you don’t buy t-shirts because they were made in Asian sweatshops, then you should support a Living Wage here in the UK. The best place to start may be your own office - just have a quiet word with the boss.