Monday, August 15, 2011

A final word on the riots (for now...)

I can't quite believe I'm saying this, but there's a very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece by Boris Johnson in today's Telegraph (posted on line late last night here). He is making the government's response look more and more flat-footed and uncertain.His mix of tough policing and the creation of hope for those left behind in our society looks like a promising way forward.

I do think his dismissal of any linkage between the looters and MPs and bankers is a little glib, however. For twenty-plus years we have lived in a culture where those at the top told us there is no such thing as society and that people needed to be set free to acquire because that would result in everyone being better off.

This has turned out to be a cruel lie but it has spawned a culture that idolises material gain. The only measure of whether you are somebody is the size of your bank balance and the ostentation of your home. From the National Lottery to the Million Pound Drop the message is that the good life is only possible with a heap of cash and all the gizmos that cash can buy. Only last night I saw an ad for yet another TV show offering to make someone a millionaire.

And our papers are full of stories of celebrities flaunting their bling and yet behaving pretty badly - as we saw on the first day of the new football season yesterday with players earning £70,000 a week behaving like street brawlers in front of their fan-base - and lambasting bankers bonuses while simultaneously calling for tax cuts for the rich.

It's little wonder the Bishop of Manchester talks of a moral vacuum from top to bottom of our society. Perhaps the rioter who said he was helping himself the way the bankers and MPs had done had a point.

Boris talks about the need to create jobs - and I applaud him for that (as I do Lord Harris who said the same in the wake of his carpet store going up in flames in Tottenham) - but we need to pay attention to the kind of jobs we are creating and the structure of rewards in those jobs. It cannot be true that a fund manager is worth 400 times a care worker in a nursery or old people's home. This pay gap is as much as illustration of the moral vacuum as the silly greed of the gossip pages and the criminal action of looters.

As long as we undervalue those who offer care and nurture in our society, while offering excessive rewards to those who move money from one place to another, we will breed a deep sense of injustice and unfairness. This is not an easy issue to tackle but Will Hutton goes some of the way in his book on how we create a fairer society (Them and Us: Changing Britain - Why we need a fair society) as well as the excellent Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett).

One place to start would be to replace minimum wage with a living wage (putting the wage floor at least £2 an hour above the current one - something Boris supports for London). At the same time you'd have to change corporate governance rules so that maximising shareholder return was not the number one duty of board rooms. We could do this; we just need politicians with vision and balls. And we need to raise the amount the amount national and local government paid care homes.

I'll leave the last word to David Cameron: 'Research by Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In "The Spirit Level", they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country's life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country's rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.' 

He said that before the election - maybe he'd like to act on it now.

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