Leading Article: The ultimate gravy train

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The Independent Online
SUPPOSE that you are a railway signaller getting by, as most do, on earnings of between pounds 15,000 and pounds 20,000 a year. You are criticised for your greed and irresponsibility in demanding a pay increase that goes beyond the Government's guidelines; you are denounced for disrupting the journeys of innocent rail passengers; you are told that your 'Spanish practices', whereby you get small extra allowances for such oddities as the shoe leather used to walk from one signalbox to another, must go.

And suppose then that you browse through the newspapers of the past two weeks and you read the following:

The finance director of Burton Group resigns to take up another job. He gets a year's salary, of about pounds 250,000, plus pounds 60,000 in consultancy fees, plus share options worth at least pounds 250,000.

The chief executive of North West Water resigns after a row with the chairman. He gets a pay-off of pounds 400,000, with share options worth pounds 276,000.

The annual report for Robert Fleming, the merchant bank, reveals that two directors have received pay rises of more than 50 per cent, taking their salaries to pounds 1.5m each.

A parliamentary answer reveals that part-time non-executive directors of your employing body, Railtrack, receive pounds 500 for each committee meeting they attend as well as their pounds 10,000 basic salary. It also discloses that the Railtrack chairman, Bob Horton, gets a basic pounds 121,800 for a three-day week.

Now, this is an old story ('It's the poor wot gets the blame/ It's the rich wot gets the gravy'). If you are a signaller - or an ambulance worker or a fireman or a schoolteacher - you could go dizzy working out that a Burton's finance director gets more just for resigning than you would get for 25 years' work ('Ain't it all a bleedin' shame?'). You could have apoplexy over the cheek of employers who criticise your Spanish customs when they charge extra just for turning up for work. You could work yourself into an even bigger lather by reading the latest company annual reports: according to one survey, bosses' pay rises last year averaged 25 per cent. But you will probably not bother; you will shrug your shoulders and wonder if you can afford to go on strike at all ('It's the same the whole world over').

Why? Why do people accept such apparent unfairness with such insouciance? It is not as if anybody attempts nowadays to justify the level of executive salaries, perks and pay-offs. Even the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have issued calls for restraint. Non-executive directors sanction rises but rarely defend them publicly. People once talked about risk, incentive, high performance, international markets. None of this washes any longer. The big rewards are going to hired managers, not just to entrepreneurs who create companies. British industry has not been notably more successful since executive pay began to soar in the mid-1980s. Failure can be at least as rewarding as success. There is no evidence that international companies are falling over themselves to lure away top British management.

Yet, to most people, bosses' pay makes little practical difference. It would cost nearly pounds 5m to settle the rail dispute - even halving the remuneration of Mr Horton and his fellow directors would make only a fractional contribution. Withdrawing the pounds 10,000 bonuses paid to a few board members would not make a difference to passenger fares; paying the signal workers' 5.7 per cent would. And not just because of the money directly involved. Large groups of workers compare their pay awards with similar groups, not with what the bosses get.

Those are the hard economic realities, which explain why sympathy for the strikes will probably ebb and why the workers may not sustain the will to continue the dispute. But there is something more. The gap between the incomes of rich and poor is greater than at any time this century. When Margaret Thatcher set out to widen inequalities, she had well-articulated arguments for doing so - notably, that the wealth generated by the better- rewarded would 'trickle down' to the masses. Those arguments have proved unfounded; even the beneficiaries of high pay no longer seem to believe them. And, as the fate of Communist regimes shows, an unjust society cannot rely forever on the indifference of the masses: when even the privileged lose conviction in their own right to privilege it can crumble quickly. If Britain's bosses continue to receive huge salaries, they had better think of reasons why they should, and think of them quickly.