Mark Steel: Help the rich to save the poor

Beckham is often derided as stupid, but he's exhibiting the spirit of his age
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If Gordon Brown falls out of favour for some reason, the next leader of New Labour should be David Beckham.

What a cracking New Labour line he came up with on announcing his new 25 million quid-a-year job. He was taking it because of "the challenge of spreading football to America". Just as slave traders went into business because of the challenge of spreading the joy of sugar-picking to Jamaica.

That must be why he accepted £5m for the Gillette advertising campaign; for the challenge of spreading razor blades across Europe. There's probably an interview with him in Hello! that goes: "My proudest moment with Real Madrid was when we beat Valencia two-nil. Because, after Raul's goal, I congratulated him with a wet kiss and his cheek felt so smooth and creamy, and it gave me such satisfaction to know I'd played a part in making his skin that airy and supple."

In some ways this is a British tradition, to be embarrassed about greed. Even during Thatcher's reign, sportsmen who went to apartheid South Africa would make statements such as: "This is a tour that can help build the reforms needed in the community," rather than: "Fuck me, I can buy a speedboat."

And Tories would justify tax cuts because: "This will boost the economy", rather than begin a political broadcast with "Yaaaahoooo - and bollocks to the Health Service - because I'm not ill."

Similarly, Buckingham Palace lobbied the compilers of The Sunday Times Rich List, complaining that the Queen wasn't as wealthy as they'd suggested. Because they love to convey the image of normality. If she could get away with it, the Queen's Christmas speech would start: "As with all families, this year has been a struggle to pay the bills. In order that we could enjoy a decent Christmas, last week we hired a pitch at a car-boot sale, and sold off Devon." Whereas, if the Queen were American, her response to the Rich List would have been a statement that went: "Yee-hoo! We're past 20 billion! Bill Gates - you can kiss my royal ass 'cos, computer boy, I'm gonna take you down."

But, under Thatcher, the need for the overpaid to hide their motives was whittled down to a thin veneer, and naked greed was famously rebranded as a force for good, which the nakedly greedy greeted with relief, as if to say: "At last." You could imagine a similar feeling among arsonists, if it were decided that, after all these years of frowning on arson as somehow anti-social, we could finally celebrate the spirit of people who start massive random fires, because combustion is no longer a dirty word.

Eventually that was rejected, and replaced with the New Labour trick of claiming to be driven by compassion, while at the same time encouraging the greedy to take even more than before. So executive pay has doubled since 2000, and the average pay for directors of the top 100 companies is £2.5m, more than 100 times the average through the country, a far greater gap than in the Eighties.

The difference is that now, when these directors receive their bonus, they make a speech at the Christmas party that goes: "I'm very grateful to accept this cheque, but there is still much to be done. In Mozambique alone, one thousand children die every day for lack of clean water. Now I'm off to buy the Faroe Islands, and don't forget cocktails and prostitutes are free until midnight." And firms are likely to put up a plaque announcing: "We are an ethical hedge-fund company" because they encourage their staff only to snort fair-trade cocaine.

When Tony Blair was questioned about this escalating inequality, he said: "If you end up going after those people who are the most wealthy in society, what you actually end up doing is not even helping those at the bottom end." Because distributing wealth away from the most wealthy towards the poor doesn't help the poor. Just as, if you spill water on the floor, it's not worth wiping it up as what you actually end up doing is not even making the floor any drier. A boom industry has been created in funding schools and hospitals and everything that was once publicly funded, partly to make uncountable millions, but mostly to enjoy the challenge of spreading Balfour Beatty across Britain.

Even arms dealers have had a boom time under this moral code. Which is especially strange, with Blair being such a Christian. If he'd been at Calvary he'd have been banging in the nails, saying: "Sorry Jesus but, if I wasn't doing it, someone else would be, and we are planting 10 trees to make up for all the wood we've used with these crucifixions. In any case, if you go after the Romans, what you actually end up doing is not helping the Christians."

This is the contortion that drives New Labour, that you do everything to help the rich, even going on holiday with them, but you do it to help the poor. Soon we'll see the first wave of New Labour bank robberies, in which the gang shouts: "Everyone get on the floor, don't say a word, remember there are villages in Tanzania 50 miles from the nearest doctor, and put everything in this sack."

Beckham is often derided as stupid, but he's exhibiting the spirit of his age. Once they've bought their place over there, Posh can make a speech in which she says: "When we moved in, it really made me think, there are some people in Sudan who don't own any castles. And the only way we're going to put that right, and I won't be put off by the pessimists, is to buy ourselves a solid gold snooker table." And they'll be fully on-message.