January 20, 2012
When Labour leader Ed Miliband used his conference speech last September to call for a fairer and more humane type of capitalism, he was greeted with widespread derision and mockery. But four months on, every leading politician in Britain is desperately trying to follow Miliband’s lead. What constitutes a fair society is no longer just a matter for academic theorists. Suddenly it’s the hottest subject in politics.
The reason is simple: growing public revulsion at a new class of super-rich who seem to be immune from the restraints that govern the lives of ordinary people. Senior bankers, private equity moguls and hedge fund managers appear cut off from the rest of us. They often pay little or no tax, increasingly live in heavily guarded enclaves, and some have little or no real allegiance to Britain. The sources of their wealth are often mysterious, and appear unrelated to merit. These feral rich pose, in their way, every bit as much of a danger to society as the rioters who stole and pillaged London streets last August.
Taxpayers spent £60 billion bailing out City bankers to save them from bankruptcy. Yet, rather than displaying contrition or gratitude, these bankers continue to pay themselves multi-million pound salaries, unimaginable sums of money to most of us.
The injustice is glaring – all the more so in a time of grinding national austerity, when living standards are falling and unemployment is rising. No wonder that, this week, David Cameron – who loves to claim that “we’re all in this together” – entered the fray with a speech trying to define what he called “responsible capitalism”. He senses that this is an issue where the Right is hugely vulnerable, as the experience of Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, proves.
Romney made a fortune of an estimated $250 million dollars out of financial engineering and private equity, while benefiting from tax breaks, during his business career. He paid a reported 15 per cent tax on his profits – a rate considerably lower than most Americans.
For some, this makes Mitt Romney a hero – but for many others, to quote the telling phrase of historian Niall Ferguson, he has come to “personify the division between rich and poor America”.
Even more than Britain, the United States has experienced the emergence of an arrogant and deracinated “overclass” of super-rich. Economists say that the super-rich in the United States are now seven times better off than they were 30 years ago. Troublingly, this massive growth of wealth and power has come directly at the expense of ordinary people. Statistics show that the income of the average working male in the United States has flatlined since the 1970s.
This sharp division of wealth has been accompanied by an even more troubling phenomenon: the ideals of the founding fathers have been shattered as class divisions in the US have widened beyond anything seen in Victorian Britain. Social mobility is in the process of grinding to a halt, as the American sociologist Charles Murray has exposed in a brilliant new book, Coming Apart.
Murray exposes how the new United States upper class, which he labels a “cognitive elite”, has developed an hereditary stranglehold over the top professions and management positions. The brightest people tend to marry each other, then ensure that their offspring get to the best schools and universities, with the result that, to quote Murray: “The parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.”
These gilded families then inter-marry and socialise together, living in the same areas, creating a phenomenon which Murray labels “super zips” – the 800-plus richest and most desirable postal codes in the United States, where the cleverest and richest congregate. What Versailles was to 18th-century France, these smart postcodes are to 21st-century America – a sure sign of a sclerotic social system and long-term decline.
Murray argues that the emergence of this “hereditary” elite has smashed the bonds of United States society. An essential part of the American myth was the idea that any child, however poor and disadvantaged, could rise to the very top. But those avenues of advancement are now being closed off.
This is only partly because the new elite has cornered the market in the best jobs and universities. More insidiously still, the American dream is being killed by the collapse of the work ethic, allied to the collapse of faith and family values, in lower-class areas. Half a century ago, young men and women were encouraged to escape from poverty through ambition and hard work: now they embrace welfare and helplessness as a way of life.
Where America leads, Britain so often follows. Already some parts of Britain – Kensington, Chelsea, parts of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire – have become an exclusive enclave for the super-rich, who use Britain as a playground rather than a home. Unlike the ambient population, this privileged caste is not dependant on the state for the provision of schools, hospitals or welfare.
“The only time that I use the state,” one financier worth an estimated £500 million confided in me recently, “is when my driver drives on public roads from the City to my country estate. I don’t like it, but I can’t help it.”
Meanwhile, like the United States, Britain also has to live with a dependent and sometimes criminal class of welfare claimants. The perverse tax system sculpted by former chancellor Gordon Brown has sent out the message that work does not pay, condemning millions to a life of idleness and low self-esteem. Last year’s riots were one consequence of this immoral system.
There is a horrible parallel here. Among both the very rich – the “overclass” – and the very poor – the “underclass” – the idea of responsibility, duty, patriotism and neighbourliness has been destroyed. Both the rich and poor are coming to live lives entirely isolated from the rest of society. And between the two is the group which Ed Miliband has christened the “squeezed middle” – that section of society which pays its taxes, does not cheat, always tries to do the right thing – and has been taken for granted by British politicians.
It has been obvious for a number of years that something has been going terribly wrong, though it has taken the impact of the recession and last summer’s riots to bring the problem to the surface.
For David Cameron the problem is especially serious because his political credibility depends on a solution. He himself, while driven by an honourable sense of public spirit, is also a product of Britain’s equivalent of Charles Murray’s gilded elite. Perhaps this is one reason why he has been so slow to confront the growing divisions in British society.
To be fair, the Prime Minister did his best to confront this in his belated speech on Thursday. He rightly defended capitalism as the best economic system the world has ever known, while condemning the abuses that have brought it into such disrepute. But Mr Cameron’s problem is that he has been in charge for almost two years now, and some of those very abuses have taken place on his watch, such as the payment of huge salaries and bonuses at the state-owned Lloyds and RBS banks.
Ed Miliband has a different problem. He cannot condemn crony capitalism without slicing into New Labour and infuriating the Blairites, whose system of government was constructed through a series of alliances with tycoons and private equity moguls.
Above all, both party leaders face a conundrum. Both support what they call a “moral” capitalism which rewards hard work and effort, and benefits the many and not just the few. But then they are also determined to crack down on the abuses.
Both agree that it is right that men and women who have made a fortune through ingenuity and hard work – such as writer JK Rowling and inventor Sir James Dyson, for example – should be allowed to retain their wealth. The question is how to create a set of rules which achieves that aim while penalising the greedy and rapacious. Neither leader has quite put their finger on the answer.