It's the economy, stupid – everybody knows that. When elections come round, and when political parties are in a tight spot, promises of lower taxes will spring as if from nowhere, while the ability of the opposition to handle the nation's finances will be summarily dismissed.
Taken at its most general, this makes some sense. After all, it is the economy around which everything else revolves. If a government can somehow encourage strong growth, it can then spend more on the health service, education and infrastructure.
But is this what people actually vote for: the health of the national economic outlook; strong but sustainable growth of GDP? Or does the economy really mean our own pocket? If the Chancellor of the Exchequer says he’s going to cut income tax, is it too much of a stretch to imagine that the most likely reaction is “great, I get to keep more of my hard earned dosh”, not “what a sensible way to stimulate public spending”.
Naturally, this isn’t greed (heaven forfend), but a legitimate expression of aspiration, that value placed firmly at the forefront of British politics by Margaret Thatcher, where it has remained more or less ever since. As long as you’re aspirational, you can’t possibly worry that you are thinking only of yourself at the expense of others.
The news that the world’s eight richest billionaires control the same combined wealth as the poorest fifty per cent of the planet’s residents could perhaps provide some food for thought. It might, for example, be taken as an indication that the global economy isn’t working for the vast majority of people; and that instead, the structural defects of runaway capitalism are responsible for rising inequality of the sort that is making life miserable for millions (and making millions for a less miserable few).
Yet this statistic is just the latest in a litany of similar figures, all of which demonstrate the widening gap between rich and poor (or, if you prefer, formerly aspirational and still aspirational). In the States, for instance, we are told that 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth is owned by 1 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, in Britain, a report by Oxfam last autumn concluded that the richest centile has twenty times more accumulated wealth than the poorest fifth of the population.
And sure enough, rising inequality is said to be one of the causes of the political ructions to have beset much of the Western world in recent times, with populations revolting against a status quo which they believe works only for a few, not for all. Anger against bankers is one manifestation; voting for Donald Trump is another. With the cost of living on the up while wages stagnate, people feel forgotten – left to decay by establishment elites who don’t care a jot.
The paradox, however, is that the chosen agents of change turn out in many cases to be symbols of precisely the inequality that has provoked widespread anger. That is most obviously true in the US, where the non-self-made billionaire Donald Trump has given hope to many that he can build a fairer and greater America – despite all the evidence suggesting he is as close to understanding real people as he is to releasing his tax returns.
In Britain, we have witnessed the peculiar spectacle of a former public schoolboy turned commodities-trader turned professional politician, becoming a man of the people. On the plus side, it goes to show that in the UK, you really can be whatever you want to be, no matter your background – provided your background is one of privilege and what you want to be is a beer-drinking, EU-hating populist.
And now that we are on the road to Brexit, the latest idea from the Government is that the UK can become the tax haven of Europe. Presumably this is to kid people here into thinking that the only inequality we’ll have to put up with in the future is between a wadded Britain and poor, scruffy, down-at-heel Europe.
One conclusion from all this is that the neo-liberal, capitalist system can’t be beaten – unless, of course, it is ultimately beaten by itself, destroyed by a twitch of the Donald’s hairpiece or a malfunctioning Presidential tweet. As for aspiration, why bother working hard when it’s clear that the link between effort and reward has become so strained. Much better to go on telly – and with a bit of luck plus some crazed shouting, you might become one of the world’s eight richest billionaires. And who wouldn’t aspire to that?
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