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.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Finance Manager - Bank - Leeds - £300/day

£250 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Finance Manager - Accountant - Bank...

Compliance Officer - CF10, CF11, Compliance Oversight, AML, FX

£100000 - £120000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: A leading fi...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn