Margareta Pagano: St Paul's protesters should convert Cameron and UK's business leaders

Those at the top are naive if they thought that they could turn a blind eye to the aftermath of the crash and still hope to stay in control

It's nearly a year since angry students marched against higher tuition fees, bringing parts of London to a standstill, Prince Charles's car was attacked and Charlie Gilmour, son of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, was arrested and later imprisoned.

Yet, for all their protestations, the students' plight had little impact on the wider public, even though the tripling of tuition fees to £9,000 was breath-taking in its audacity. Instead, the students came across as rather selfish, a self-entitled generation that believe that they should be exempt from today's economic realities.

The same can't be said for today's protesters taking part in the Occupy London Stock Exchange, camping out at St Paul's Cathedral. Their protest is made of sterner stuff; a protest against the growing discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots that has become more apparent over the past 25 years than at any time over the past century.

It's one that is gaining support from unlikely sources – from the Financial Times in the UK to The New York Times in the US, where the Occupy Wall Street protest is also in full swing, and from commentators across the political divide. Wall Street has captured the headlines, but the original inspiration for this new "movement" came from the Spanish indignados, a miscellaneous group of students and the unemployed who arrived in Brussels last weekend, who started walking from Madrid in June, to protest at crippling austerity cuts and the "dictatorship of the financial markets".

Their message has caught on fast; there have been about 950 different sit-ins and sit-downs in some 80 countries over the past month and, while there are many different themes, most of the demonstrators share a similar motive: that the brand of capitalism being practiced in the West just isn't working for the majority, only for a select few. Or, as the banners declare: "We are the 99%".

It's a theme the UK's business leaders, as well as the Prime Minister, should address if they hope to stay in control. For the 200 or so St Paul's tents are a direct, if delayed, consequence of the 2008 banking crisis, an act of quiet defiance against the way in which the political elite and big bosses have pandered to the banking lobby. They feel nothing has changed in the past three years – apart from higher taxes, fuel prices, food costs and inflation, and growing unemployment.

While the crash may be the trigger, you can trace the seeds of this unease to the late 1980s, when wealth discrepancies started to soar, first in the US, then in the UK, and now through the rest of Europe, even in the more egalitarian Nordic societies. The demonstrators are not against capitalism per se but they are uncomfortable with the money that the top men and women running our big corporations are taking for themselves, while salary differentials within companies are widening. In the early 1990s, the norm in most big companies and the professions was a 30:1 ratio – those at the top earning 30 times what those on average pay earned. Today, that ratio has climbed into stratosphere, with our top FTSE 100 bosses earning 200-300 times that of those at the bottom – and it's growing.

Businessman Sir Paul Judge, an unlikely pay warrior, has warned about this for years. As he points out, the pay of FTSE 100 bosses has been rising at 15 per cent a year since 1998, yet the FTSE index has been broadly static, with an average annual earnings growth of 4 per cent. If these executives had been creating real value for shareholders and staff, their pay might be justified, but they are not.

You can blame many factors; remuneration committees, pay experts who benchmark salaries, complacent shareholders, as well as greed and inertia. But it was the great push for deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s that started the process which its proponents hoped would lead to a trickle-down in income from the top; that by opening up monopolies and oligopolies to competition, wealth would flow down. It hasn't happened; the old state industries that were privatised became new oligopolies, the Big Bang of the City – 25 years ago this month – opened up the floodgates to capital from the giant US and overseas banks, which brought their new methods of syndication and underwriting and wiped out the local competition. With them came the big salaries, and the bigger bonuses.

I remember breaking a story in the mid-1980s that Merrill Lynch was offering analysts £200,000 – then about four times the going rate – to woo them away from their UK companies. Sure, prior to this, stockbrokers and traders made fortunes, but they did so in partnerships, at their own risk, and were not underwritten by the taxpayer. Another big mistake was turning building societies into public companies; a mistake that has cost them their very survival.

This isn't just a City gap. New figures from the OECD show that the average income of the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population is about nine times that of the bottom 10 per cent. Put another way, the richest are getting richer while the real income of the bottom half is declining in real terms. It's not just waged labour that is being squeezed now, the middle classes are feeling the heat and can see that their children are going to be squeezed harder still, as well-paid work becomes harder to come by, for a smaller salaries.

That's why the men and women at Tent City have caught the imagination. Critics of the Occupy group dismiss them by saying they lack a proper agenda: they don't have "demands" and it's just another loony movement hijacked by Seattle-style anti-globalists. I'm not so sure. To my mind, the fact that there is no dogmatic agenda is it's strength; it's a spirit of injustice that they are expressing. Whether this spirit is translated into a serious political force is too early to tell.

But if business leaders are to head-off these concerns, then they need to understand that the public's anger is directed at them as well as at the bankers and politicians. Some do get it. Sir Roger Carr admitted to me a few months ago when taking over at the CBI: "We've got to show in a much better way that business is a force for good; demonstrate that companies invest in research, that they pay fair taxes and are good for society."

Now it's time to translate words into action; there is much that the CBI, and other groups, can do – encourage alternative forms of finance for SMEs, put pressure on boards to control salaries, and so on.

The onus is now on businessmen, and the politicians, to show that the capitalism of the past 30 years is the rich man's version. One of the problems with the Cabinet, and Cameron, is that few of them have children – like Gilmour's son – to articulate how the younger generation feels. As the historians remind us, it's the middle classes which start revolutions. And you can see an eerie parallel between those marching indignados and Europe's revolutions in 1848, the year Karl Marx published his Communist Manifesto. The only surprise about the St Paul's campers is that they are so few in number, and have taken so long to arrive.

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