Philip Hensher: Shakespeare, salaries – and why inequality is not inevitable

 

Share
Related Topics

How much does your neighbour earn?

Do you think he deserves it? What do you think he thinks about your earnings? Should he be made to earn less, or should you be made to earn more? When the lion lies down with the lamb, and the stockbroker with the shop assistant, what, exactly, will that achieve?

Outrage has been expressed at the news that Britain's top executives saw their salaries rise by 3 per cent last year. If that doesn't sound like much, they also saw their average bonus rise by 23 per cent on 2010. If that weren't enough, calculations have shown that additional long-term incentive plan values make up the rise to an overall 49 per cent.

It's pretty hard to justify such rises in the current financial and business climate. But what is to be done about it? The GMB union called them "elite greedy pigs". Other union leaders said that institutional shareholders should exercise more restraint, or that worker representatives on company boards should work towards narrowing the gap between boardroom and shop-floor wages.

I've tried extremely hard, but I find it almost impossible to give a toss about inequality per se. That's not the same as not caring about the poor. The people at the bottom of economic life in a civilised society should not struggle for existence, shelter and food. I also think that inequality should not be an insurmountable obstacle, transmitted from generation to generation. But inequality as such – the idea that one person is very much richer than another through the inequality of their own labours and responsibilities in life? Nope. Couldn't give a toss about that one.

On Thursday, this paper printed a list of Britain's 10 top-earning chief executives, with earnings of between £18.4m (Mick Davis of Xstra) and £8m (Dame Marjorie Scardino of Pearson). To my slight surprise, I saw that one of the names on the list was someone I sat next to at a very jolly lunch last week in London. His income, really, is no more my business than mine is his. His shareholders can certainly take an interest: if the business is run efficiently, then they will take a firm view on whether he is worth it. Why on earth should I be expected to care that my neighbour at lunch had an income of 60 or 70 times mine last year?

Desperate poverty has no place in our society. But how will reducing chief executives' pay help with that? Let's do the maths. Sir Terry Leahy, the ex-chief executive of Tesco, got £12m in his last year. Let's reduce him to, say £500,000, and give Tesco's 260,000 UK employees an extra £3.68 a month. Is that really going to be much more help than exploiting and rewarding the business acumen that took Tesco to record worldwide profits?

Complaints about the earnings of the very rich miss the point. Obviously, it is a scandal that anyone in the public sector is paid more than the Prime Minister – vice-chancellors, managers of hospitals. But there is no real harm in very powerful people in the private sector being paid very large sums of money, with two provisos. First, they should deserve it in the eyes of their shareholders, and be forced to justify it every year. Secondly, the private fortune should be a shining beacon of social mobility. Much better that people dream about the £20m pay packet than the £100m lottery win.

We've allowed our concerns about inequality of income to swamp concerns about what truly matters: inequality of opportunity. The Bertelsmann Foundation in Berlin this week published a report which classed Britain 15th out of 31 nations for social justice. It lumps together, however, some very different factors, including inequality of income along with inequality of education. We should be extremely worried that 75 per cent of those children from the richest fifth of society get five good GCSEs or more, whereas only 21 per cent of those from the poorest fifth do.

Should we be worried that some individuals were thought worthy of earning tens of millions of pounds, and many were not? Should we not be more worried that someone coming from that poorest fifth, like Sir Terry Leahy, would now be rather venally inspired by the thoughts of a £20m pay packet and painfully find that that opportunity was nowadays available only to the privately educated children of the rich?

Just how much we have lost faith in the idea of the equality of talents and the ideal of the equality of opportunity is shown by an extraordinary phenomenon which might not be thought to have much to do with anything. It's the revival of the Earl of Oxford theory of Shakespeare's authorship, now being proposed by a ludicrous film, Anonymous, and a surprising number of professionals. The theory runs that the actor Shakespeare could not have written the plays ascribed to him: they must have been written by a well-educated nobleman, familiar with Italy and the learned classics.

Of course, it's total balls. The author of Shakespeare clearly didn't know Italy at all, was a keen but patchy reader, and the Earl of Oxford died in 1604 anyway. The age could produce a much more learned author in Ben Jonson, the stepson of a bricklayer. But why do we, quite suddenly, think there's something in this crap?

It's because we ourselves have got used to the idea that inequality of opportunity, as well as status, is an inevitable thing. Ability, opportunity, learning and skill are not just unequal, but linked in our minds to how much money we have. Of course we start to think that only a posh bloke could have written Shakespeare, when we accept that children with money are naturally going to do better at school. The only way a Shakespeare could be acclaimed as a genius is the sort of random fluke the film depicts. Complaining about munificently rewarded CEOs is entirely pointless. What would be more fruitful would be to wonder about the number of state-educated CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies, or the number of women, or British-born ethnic minorities.

What those figures are like is what matters, and will still matter in 30 years, not what they earn.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee