Christina Patterson: Fair society? Only, alas, in our fantasies...

Ever since the housewife from Grantham peddled the myth of hardwork, we've clung to the view that the rich should be rewarded because one day we might be among them
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The Independent Online

It's not fair. It's not fair that we have a football team that's dismally dim- witted and it's not fair that the cock-eyed Candides who saved up for years to see "their" team on a football pitch for a little bit more than three hours in a month, proved, once again, that hope springs eternal in the English breast but is almost always misplaced; and it's not fair that paying team members more than twice the average annual salary a week, and their clueless manager four million a year, failed to act as any kind of "incentive to work". But there we are. Life isn't fair. What's done is done, and we're all in this together.

Actually, I have to admit that I couldn't stop laughing when the cashier in (a marvellously empty) Morrisons told me that England had lost, 4-1. I laughed, too, when I saw Angela Merkel and David Cameron posing primly in front of a giant telly, and at the shot of Cameron, who has confessed to an interest in football that is at best lukewarm, cradling his head in a perfectly pitched Pietà of shared pain. You could almost argue that this mass (and emulated) grief was rather good value for money, and considerably better than a global summit that cost more than a billion dollars to put on and, instead of tackling global poverty, or climate change, ended with a statement that Hallmark might like to hallmark, to the effect of "You do your thing, I'll do mine".

You could also, perhaps, argue that it was a necessary catharsis. That, after a period of unremitting bleakness – recession, sporting ineptitude, politicians on the fiddle and the ongoing stress of living in a country that's always somehow mildly disappointing – it was like a national school trip to King Lear, but one where, as the drama lurched inexorably towards its cataclysmic climax, you could at least crack open another Carlsberg. Maybe hearts across the country are now lighter, spirits higher, shoulders less hunched. The burden of pain has been shed and shared. We can now start the recovery.

We had, of course, just had a practice run. Another group of rather well remunerated men were forced two years ago to admit that they'd dropped the ball, and we hadn't noticed because we hadn't been looking, and the governing body hadn't been looking either, and we'd all thought that they must know what they were doing because they were paid so much. But it turned out that they didn't have a clue, and that it wasn't just the ball that was full of air, the pitch was made of air, the stands were made of air, the whole bloody caboodle was made of air.

But the game had to go on, we were told, it really did have to go on, because if there was no pitch, and no ball, and no players, there would be no schools, or hospitals, or police stations, because although it looked like a game, it wasn't actually a game, and so we would have to rescue the pitch, the ball and the players, and pay the transfer fees, and the wages hundreds of times our own, and we'd have to do it out of our own pockets. Not ideal, it's true, no one's saying it's ideal, but we're all realists, aren't we?

And, yes, we soon all were realists. We soon all saw, in the words of the woman who helped persuade us that gargantuan City salaries were an all-round great idea, that there was no alternative. Bit of a bummer, but it can't be helped. And so when a man born in the year that that same woman abolished milk in primary schools (giving him ideas, perhaps, about school lunches) told us last week about the plans he had drawn up to set us on the road to recovery, we were resigned. The plans, he told us, were "progressive". They were tough, but fair.

God only knew what "progressive" meant, but we knew about "tough" and we knew about "fair". "Tough" meant difficult. It sounded responsible and grown-up. "Fair" meant – well, fair meant something you could probably agree with. Public sector pay freeze? Cushy bastards with their big fat pensions. Yeah, why not? Slashing benefits for the unemployed? Lazy lardasses. Filthy scum. That'll teach them to sit around chewing the cud while watching Jeremy Kyle. Just don't touch my child benefit. Or my freedom pass. Or my winter fuel allowance. Oh, great, you didn't!

You'd have thought, from the chorus of approval that burst forth amongst commentators and opinion polls, that the people who caused this economic crisis were the nurses and binmen whose final salary pension schemes were some compensation for, let's face it, rather shitty wages, and by single mothers on sink estates. You'd have thought, in other words, that they were the problem. There certainly is a problem with public sector pensions and how we pay for them, and there certainly is a problem with the quality of parenting offered by many unemployed young adults, and there certainly is a problem with an entire sector of society that has no model of work and no experience of work and which has had, for the past 13 years, very little incentive to work.

These are deeply entrenched problems, and ones which a good-hearted government failed, even in good times, to solve. They are not problems that can be solved on a shoe-string, or in the course of a parliament, or even in the course of several parliaments. And they are certainly not problems that can be solved in the guise of sorting out a national, and global, economic crisis.

A fair Budget might have asked banks to cough up a bit more than the mere two billion expected from the bank levy (less than a sixth of the savings made from the slashed welfare bill) and might have considered a higher tax rate for people who earn over £100,000, or maybe even £75,000, or maybe even £60,000. Somehow, politicians, and newspaper commentators, have managed to convince the population that this isn't very much. Most people in this country (apart from GPs, who now take it as their due) have about as much hope of earning £100,000 as they have of winning the lottery. If you earn over £40,000, you're in the top 10 per cent. And yet, ever since that milk-snatching housewife from Grantham peddled the myth that "hard work might not always get you to the top, but it should get you pretty near", we've clung to the view that the rich should be rewarded because one day we might be among them. A fantasy, it has to be said, about on a par with England ever winning the World Cup.

We have, increasingly, a very strange view of what's fair. George Osborne clearly thinks that by not chucking the poor into Chinese-style dormitories, he's being more than fair. Vince Cable looks suicidal, but mouths the word "fair" when instructed, as the price of the Faustian pact he's signed. Nick Clegg, who gives the impression that he'd happily sell the souls of everyone in the country to ensure his continued presence at the top table, insists that it's all fair, and, of course, progressive, and (but we don't give a monkey's) "liberal". And we, credulous fools, have agreed.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies doesn't think that the coalition's plans for spending cuts are fair. Nor do economists working in conjunction with the Fabian Society, who have demonstrated that the poorest families will lose more than a fifth of their income while the richest (those earning more than £49,700) will lose less than 4 per cent. The poorest, by the way, didn't sell any sub-prime mortgages, or wreck any global economic systems, or award themselves breathtaking bonuses. They didn't even miss any goals. Faced with a choice between low-wage labour and unaffordable housing, and no labour and paid-for housing, they chose (or some of them chose) the latter. It's called strategic thinking, and Capello and his sorry crew might learn from it.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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