Sunday, May 17, 2009

The scandal over MPs' expenses is part of the fall out from the credit crunch

A couple of MPs appear to have committed offences that should land them in court, and many more have done themselves very well at the public expense.

But the causes of the anger over MPs' expenses goes beyond indignation at what has been done with our money. That anger is so great because this affair has laid bare what an unequal society we have live in.

That inequality was seen in its most extreme form, at least before the credit crunch, in London. In an article I have quoted before, John Lanchester - writing in January 2008, just as the economy was collapsing - described a friend of his:

Not all City types are vile, obviously. My friend Tony isn’t vile. We have many interests in common and chat easily about all sorts of things. But I’m sometimes made aware of a significant gap between us. It’s a philosophical and practical gap, and it is to do with money.

Tony will complain about the price of things – about parking permits, or the cost of the Playstation 3 he’s promised his son – but I’ve begun to wonder if this is a purely formal acknowledgment of the value of money to other people. Tony’s ‘basic’ is £120,000 a year; in a good year he earns a bonus of £500,000. In a very good year he is paid a million pounds.

He is polite about this but the details slip out nonetheless. He bought a second home on Ibiza and I was commiserating with his complaints about the usual things (builders, local regulations) until the cost of the house was mentioned: £1.4 million.

A fundamental economic gap of that type does open up a distance between people, however many other things you have in common. He happened once to mention what he (as a head of department) pays new recruits, straight out of university: ‘45k a year, with a bonus of between ten and twelve grand guaranteed.’

I pointed out that in many cases that would mean these 22-year-olds would be earning more than the heads of department in the universities they’d just graduated from. He shrugged and laughed. ‘It is what it is,’ he said.

Does this extreme inequality matter? Lanchester argued that it does:

The presence of so many people who don’t have to care what things cost raises the price of everything, and in the area of housing, in particular, is causing London’s demographics to look like the radiation map of a thermonuclear blast. In this analogy only the City types can survive close to the heart of the explosion.

At this time of year, when the bonus stories come out, you can understand why. A bar announces that it is offering the most expensive cocktail in the world: £35,000. That buys you a shot of cognac, a half bottle of champagne, a diamond ring and the attentions of two security guards to protect you for the rest of the evening. A deli, at the special request of a customer, creates a £50,000 Christmas hamper. Word gets out, and another customer immediately orders two more.

The expense of London is forcing people further and further out of the city, and making life harder and harder for the ones who remain.

Nick Cohen has often been ridiculed for talking about the middle class poor in London, but I think he is on to something. He is fond of quoting the novelist James Hawes on the subject, and I put a relevant passage from Hawes (with added paragraph breaks, as I often do when quoting books and articles on this blog) on my old anthology blog Serendib back in 2006. It comes from his novel Dead Long Enough:

It must be there, somewhere, we all thought: the forgotten island. An oasis in between the impossible places everyone on earth knows from postcards and the inconceivable places no one has ever heard of except the poor sods that live there.

It must be there, still, somewhere: nothing flash, not the kind of place where shops selling chromium taps punctuate boulevards of ridiculously-named cafes: just a neighbourhood where ordinary, hardworking, untrustfunded, child-having, educated-ish, interesting-ish people can afford normal, sociable little houses with modest gardens for the kids.

With the odd pub where you can take said kids and have a quiet pint and maybe the occasional friendly word with other late-thirties blokes who are trying to read large newspapers and enjoy their pints while likewise minding their kids.

With schools where said kids will not be attacked every day because they are not in the Young NF and/or don't know what Gangsta Rappers should wear when they are eight. And neighbours who don't play White Trash Thrash or Devastation Techno and don't kick in your car just for the fuck of it and axe-murder one another on Saturday nights when the gear runs short.

And only half a dozen stops from town.

And you can afford.

The kind of places that used to exist. That surely used to exist?

But since none of us is an oil analyst, corporate lawyer or suchlike, the result, circa the millennium was: Hahahahaha!

This may explain why we all hate the rich nowadays. And it certainly explains why MPs have been tempted to feather their nests. To live in London today you need serious money. And unless you are in the City you feel hard done by, even though you earn a fortune by most people's standards.

When we have finished enjoying ourselves at MPs' expense - it makes a change from them enjoying themselves at our expense - we should turn to the real villains and sort out the culture of the City.

4 comments:

Peter Harvey said...

Just this evening I spoke to my aunt in Merseyside. A friend of hers had been to London and wanted a nice cup of tea. OK it was a trip to the capital and she splurged a bit and she never thought that Fortnum and Mason's was cheap. But even so, she was rather more than surprised to be asked for £41.50 per person for afternoon tea. A bottle of water cost eight pounds.

But then, I am reminded of what F.Scott Fitzgerald said: 'The rich are different from you and me.' And Hemingway replied, 'Yes, they have more money.'

PS I remember a Liberal friend called Chris Wilding. Maybe others do as well. He was a stockbroker. Sometimes he would turn up at 'the table' in the NLC and buy champagne all round. Once I remember he'd had a bad time and he bought himself a half of mild and nursed it all evening. And there was the evening when he announced that he would have to sell the part of the racehorse that he owned. But, and this is the point, he was not stinking rich and when he was in funds, he spread it about.

Simon Titley said...

I too have fond memories of Chris Wilding and was an occasional beneficiary of his excesses. But Chris was working in the City during the 1980s, before City culture had become all-pervasive and when most people still made fun of mobile phones.

Returning to Jonathan's original posting, I can recommend Sue Cameron's book The Cheating Classes: The Disempowerment of the British People. It was published seven years ago in 2002, but even then there was plenty of evidence that people's lives were being ruined by concentrations of power and wealth.

Given the widespread sense of injustice and disempowerment, you would think that - even if conditions are not revolutionary - there is a substantial market for radical politics. Yet curiously, all three main party leaders have shown a marked reluctance to break out of neoliberal consensus.

What is Nick Clegg afraid of? The Daily Mail? Paul Marshall?

Edis said...

Just been pointed to an interesting book by two epidemiologists on the health implications of inequality in society. Looks worth analysing if only to get a grip on arguments we will be part of - if not always in agreement with.

'The Spirit Level' Richard Wickenham and Kate Pickett

M. said...

Disgraced MP's should not be allowed to stay on in parliament like a bad smell - they must resign their seats, and leave parliament immediately - the only reason they want to stay on, is so they can pick up a large lump sum cheque.....These dodgy MP's must get the boot NOW. They don't deserve £64,000 in "resettlement grant" cash. Do they?

What is a possible solution? Salaries should be set reasonably high, but in line with the Civil Service Pay Scale. Just as London's Court of Common Council maintains a small suite of bedrooms for use of its 100 Member Parliament, so Westminster should do the same - so MP's who need to overnight in London, can do so in a modicum of comfort, and at minimal expense to the taxpayer.

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