Rich and Getting Richer

For the last five years we have heard a great detail of rhetoric from British politicians about the ‘tough choices’ that the financial crisis has imposed upon the nation.  Again and again we heard that this crisis affected everyone equally, and that all of us were rowing together, like it says in the Eton boating song, to put it right and share out the burden and the hardship.

Most of this came from the government, but not all.  Though the Labour opposition fretted about ‘unfairness’, and the ‘squeezed middle’ or the ‘cost of living crisis’, it also promised that it would not reverse any Coaltion cuts if it won the next election and would in fact continue to oversee the process of ‘austerity.’

Naturally there were cynics among us who suspected that austerity was in fact a lie and a fraud being perpetuated on a supine and credulous nation.   And yesterday the Sunday Times provided fairly unequivocal evidence that this was indeed the case, when it published its annual ‘rich list‘.  It found that  the UK’s 1000 richest individuals have doubled their wealth in the last five years, from £249 billion in 209 to a current combined total of £519 billion between them.

They include the Queen, who now has a current fortune of £330 million, up £10 million from last year.   And Philip Green, who lives most of the year in Monaco and has evaded £285 million in taxes by channelling dividend payouts through a number of offshore accounts, including his wife’s – the same Philip Green who was appointed by Cameron as special advisor on how to cut public spending by avoiding ‘waste’.

Though Green chooses to spend most of his time abroad, 104 billionaires have honoured us with their presence in the UK, with a combined wealth of £301 billion between them.

According to Philip Beresford, who compiles the list: ‘While some may criticise them, many of these people are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth for the country.’

Some do indeed criticize them, though such critics are generally absent from the national press and the country’s political class.  Apart from a few rhetorical raised eyebrows, none of the papers that commented on the ‘rich list’ story yesterday appears to have found anything particularly untoward about the fact that those who have the most have actually increased their wealth during a time of (supposedly) general crisis, while ever-more stringent cuts have been imposed on the national wealth available to the rest of the population, particularly those at the bottom of the pile.

In January this year, the Labour-led Derbyshire County Council, where I live, announced proposals make £157 million worth of cuts from its budget by 2018, including 36.7m in 2014-15.  These include:

  • A £9 million cut in the funding of housing-related support services which help vulnerable people such as drug addicts and alcoholics set up and maintain a home where they can live safely and well, by helping them to manage finances, pay bills, or  manage their health.
  •   Raising the eligibility threshold at which the elderlyqualify for council care from a ‘higher moderate’ level of need to a ‘substantial’ level of need, so that only those in the latter category would qualify to receive council care
  • Charging the 1,100 people who use council services for their transport to day care centres
  • Cutting the number of mobile libraries (essential in rural areas) and the number of library opening hours.
  • Cutting the Community Safety Project Fund, which attempts to tackle anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and re-offending rates

Every county and every city will have its own list, and there are some that are experiencing an even harsher cuts regime.  But the general pattern is the same everywhere: that the state is inexorably abandoning its responsibilities to the poorest, most marginalized and vulnerable people in society – responsibilities that ought to be the hallmarks of a humane and civilized society.

And while the share of the nation’s wealth wealth that ought to be devoted to the common good has been relentlessly drained and siphoned away,   men and women with more wealth than most of us would need even if we lived five lifetimes have been acquiring even more of it.

None of this was inevitable.    It was allowed to happen and made to happen because of political and moral choices that were made, and created divisions of wealth that would make Louix XIV seem like a Social Democrat.   And whatever the likes of Philip Beresford may believe,  I see little reason to celebrate these developments.

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