At the time of writing, the Duchess of Cambridge has, it seems, gone into labour with the child expected to be the third in line to the British throne – after the child’s grandfather, Charles Windsor, and father, William Windsor. In line with royal and ancient birth expectations, the event has attracted world-wide interest, with a host of national and international journalists and camera persons encamped on the footpaths outside of St. Mary’s Hospital in central London.
There are minute-by-minute updates on the royal birth process and progress and the effects of this on the Windsor household. However, it would seem to this writer that the most apposite comment came at the end of one news update. The commentator simply mentioned that, despite the fact there were hundreds of other births occurring at that moment around the nation, few, if any, will occasion the slightest comment. The differential of news interest and commentary, not to mention the relative medical concern and treatment, between the birth to the royals and that of any other citizens in this nation points-up the disparity between royals and the other citizens of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it personifies the inequality still existing in this so-called democratic nation and one to which its citizens seem largely inured.
With the above in mind I read with great interest an article in the latest The Guardian – Weekend Edition in which, under the title “In Britain today the rules, like taxes, are for the little people”, the journalist outlines a number of glaring inequalities in British life. I do not often resort to simply reiterating other writers’ information but, with due acknowledgement to Jonathan Freedland and suitable use of the appropriate quotation marks, I would wish to reproduce some of his journalism in what follows.
1. On the one hand, a man jailed for six months for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 in the summer riots of 2011 was not given the opportunity to hand back the water and pay a fine. On the other hand, the security firm, G4S (remember the London 2012 Olympic Games security fiasco?), seemingly guilty of overcharging the public purse to the tune of “tens of millions of pounds for non-existing services and refusing to submit to a voluntary forensic audit”, has simply promised to “reimburse any overbilling”. No legal action to follow, then, and G4S are not alone in “sucking billions from the public teat”, seemingly with the collusion of those who control that source of financial succour.
2. I recently received advice from HM Revenue and Customs informing me that they had taxed my retirement income for nearly £400 less than they should have. Whose fault was that? Not to worry, without consultation they are going to decrease my personal tax allowances this financial year in order to recoup the loss to the national coffers. Starbuck’s, the “milky-drinks giant”, in response to the discovery (revelation?) that it had paid next to no tax on the huge profits it accrues from its British outlets, offered to write a self-determined £10m cheque to Revenue and Customs – to be paid in two or more instalments. I was not given this privilege of choosing what my tax was to be and how I might pay in a manner that may have been more suitable to my circumstances, and certainly I did not expect applause as if I was performing an “act of philanthropy”.
3. For several years now public sector workers have been expected to get by on a 1% pay rise. With inflation being in excess of this, “the pay rise amounts to a pay cut”. Not so for some public sector workers, especially those who are members of parliament. According to the independent body that sets the rules, our political representatives (many of whom obviously do not see themselves singularly in such humble roles, preferring the board rooms and lobbying halls and the payments accruing therefrom) should get a pay rise of 11%. It would seem that some public employees, like some British citizens, deserve proportionately more than others – grossly so! When pay differentials are taken into account, this recommendation for members of parliament is obscene. As a former teacher I would have been be most agreeable were parliament to act accordingly and favourably to all ‘independent bodies’ that sought to set pay scales.
4. Some years ago I experienced job loss from an international charity when, in an international down-sizing process the management position I occupied was made redundant. I was offered three months salary in lieu of employment. So, what should be my reaction to “BBC management being offered massive sums of tax-payers’ money” when removed from public broadcasting jobs because of their incompetence or misdeeds?
5. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, plans to make the newly laid-off wait longer for welfare help. This from a man who admitted that “he had never visited a food bank and had no idea what caused people to use one”. Perhaps he should make the obvious link between delays in reception of benefits and the need to use a food bank. In a similar way, when Osborne was asked by the Treasury select committee why it is that “the maximum amount of housing benefit that can be claimed for a one-bedroom flat in London is £250 a week, yet for a flat of the same size in the same city an MP can claim up to £350?”, he had no answer! No idea; no answer; no hope.
6. These days, it would seem that ‘austerity Osborne’ prefers to talk about his plans for the next parliament. He would envisage that in this future “tax increases will not be required”; rather, the deficit will be further reduced by “cutting what he calls ‘welfare’. In other words, those who have least will get less”.
It is this last example that personifies the rampant inequality that, increasingly under the present government, besets our nation – a pattern that has become so familiar that we barely recognise it any more. As Jonathan Freedland puts it, “the national belt has to be tightened, so we make sure that it squeezes those who are already gasping for breath.” Or, to reshape the metaphor, we are becoming ‘a nation of two-waists’, those who need a belt to hold-in a waist and those who have no need of a belt because they have no waist to hold-in (the metaphor holds good if the word ‘waist’ is replaced by ‘waste’).
There is a parable in the New Testament that speaks of the those who are poor and needy feeding off the scraps that fall from the tables of the rich. The wealthy continue to ignore the poor at the table, indeed, can not recognise their presence because of their concentration on their own feasting. The poor can have, even if they are not necessarily welcome to, the scraps. We live in “a land of double standards where those with much expect more and believe that the rules, like taxes, are for the little people” – the latter being those whose place, it is believed by the ‘big people’, is at the feet of the so-called and often self-styled elite.
There is little journalistic reference these days to the word ‘injustice’. Politicians, and others, many of whom pay only lip service to the concept of ‘equality’, prefer the term ‘fairness’. John Rawls, in true liberal style, speaks of ‘justice as fairness’. However, when it seems that we live under a system where different rules apply to different people, with the very rich all but exempt, it matters little which specific word is used – the outcomes are the same!
I began by speaking of ‘royal babies’ and the glaring inequalities in British life, inequalities that we find hard to see, never mind do anything about. We may believe that the United Kingdom “never had it so good” and is getting better. We refuse to even think about, never-mind to engage politically, economically and socially with, the crude notion of ‘inequality’. Or, as Jonathan Freedland concludes, “when we do see it, perhaps we are so resigned we simply shrug. But it’s still there, right in front of one’s nose.”