John Kampfner: Which of our leaders has really got the courage to care?

The Coalition may have cracked down harder on the wealthy's pay rises and tax dodges than its predecessor, but that is not saying much

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The behaviour of journalists has been truly shocking. I'm not talking, for once, about phone hacking, the paparazzi and the Leveson Inquiry. I'm talking about expenses claims. The profession was a market leader. Two of the more colourful cases I can recall were for an entire family's ski trip and for a lawnmower, even though the claimant lived high up in a block of flats. One was technically permitted, the other was technically fraudulent.

Why, on the eve of the Chancellor's important economic statement and a potentially debilitating strike, do I bring up details such as these? I do this to show that most people try to get away with it most of the time – if they are allowed to. Good behaviour is usually the result of rules and peer pressure.

The story of the reckless bankers is well known. The enormous pay rises for FTSE chief executives have left a similarly sickening taste. The public sector has seen quango chiefs and council bosses on silly money. As for the BBC and its army of managers, they used the spurious excuse that they had to pay each other exorbitant salaries to stop them from fleeing to rivals. Nobody has yet managed to identify a single competitor prepared to hand over such cash, but snouts remain in troughs. I nearly forgot our estimable Members of Parliament.

As the vast majority of Britons face, according to George Osborne, another six years of austerity, it is worth remembering that Gordon Brown's spending boom was based on greed and borrowing. His deal with the super-rich was to leave them untouched, relying on their very limited largesse to fund investment in his pet public-service projects: trickle-down economics, traditional Thatcherite values in a modern setting.

Labour's supine indulgence of the globalised wealthy – prompted by fear in Brown's case, envy in Tony Blair's – was one of the reasons I lost whatever sympathy I still had for it following the Iraq war. The nightmare of the 1980s, when the party allowed itself to be seen as anti-entrepreneurship, rightly led to a rethink. John Smith's "prawn cocktail" offensive was designed to show business it had nothing to fear from a Labour government.

From the moment Blair took over that message morphed from accommodation to admiration. Every time I mentioned tax avoidance to treasury ministers – from the non-doms, to the various wheezes that made London such an attractive home for anyone with a private jet – I was told to get real. In one respect they were right. Britain was in the midst of a boom and nobody was complaining much.

The country's economic prospects may now be different, but to what extent has the mood changed? There is more circumspection in the public sector about pay at the top (but still not enough); in the private sector nothing seems to have changed. Rewards for success – and failure – remain limitless. Revelations in recent days about the rich not paying their council tax and stamp duty, using various off-shore scams, are shrugged away with ministerial platitudes.

In some ways, the Coalition has cracked down harder than its predecessor, but that is not saying much. The bar was set absurdly low. There is far more that the present government should do, but David Cameron is wary of going any further. Not only is he resisting external pressure for a tax on the banks, the so-called Tobin tax that the French and Germans would like to apply EU-wide, but he is also keen to reassure his friends in the City and in the boardroom that his Government will treat them well. Osborne is said to be more amenable to further steps.

This is an area which Nick Clegg should make his own. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that, with Labour still frightened of accusations of "anti-business", there is ample political space for someone to represent the mass of British opinion that deeply resents making sacrifices while a tiny minority gets away with it. Some Conservative MPs are beginning to understand too. In a newspaper article on Sunday, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock called for greater shareholder involvement to prevent soaring pay, including an employee representative on remuneration committees – albeit in an advisory capacity. Small it might sound in practice, but that is some ideological shift.

In the past few weeks, Clegg has made a series of announcements of investment projects designed to slow down the inexorable rise in unemployment. Plan A is not being abandoned – Osborne and Cameron are unlikely to bend their public spending targets – but it is being tweaked. Labour's critique over the past 18 months has been half right, half wrong. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have consistently warned of the dangers posed by an excessive squeeze, both on growth and on meeting deficit-reduction targets. One of the ironies of politics post-crash is that, even though the folly of the unbridled free market has been laid bare, parties of the centre-left have suffered at the polls.

On the basis of Nixon in China, perhaps a centre-right coalition can do what Labour was too frightened to try – to begin to re-balance a pay scale that makes no economic or political, let alone moral sense. To do so would require measures that go far beyond the piecemeal changes already flagged. The danger for politicians, if they don't embrace the new mood, is not Greek-style militancy. Wednesday's public-sector strike will lead to mutterings of annoyance from the millions affected by school closures and predicted airport chaos. Apart from the odd march, the odd protest outside St Paul's and the odd strike, British docility is entrenched.

More dangerous is a mood of sullen defeatism. Few voters believe Cameron's mantra that "we are all in it together". He calculates that, for as long as Labour is not trusted in times of hardship, he will scrape through in 2015 with or without recourse to the Liberal Democrats. Forecasts of an economic upswing have been postponed until a second term.

Then he hopes business will return to usual. Most people will be a bit better off; the "1 per cent" will continue to rake it in – because nothing is done to impede this base human instinct. Grab it while you can and look after your own. It is in times of trouble that real change usually takes place. But this time does anyone have the courage?

 

John Kampfner is the author of 'Freedom For Sale'. Mary Ann Sieghart is away

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