One of the most frequently voiced criticisms of the developing world is that its leaders are avaricious monsters, supported by a ruthless kleptocracy all of whom have their snouts in the trough. If I tried to list them all, I would be here until midnight.
The gulf between the rich and the poor in the developing world is vast. In most cases, the only reason that it isn’t opening any wider is that it can’t. It has reached pretty well its maximum extent. If the rulers and their governing cliques deprived the poor of any more of their nation’s wealth, they would be left sitting at the top of a mountain of corpses, which would not be good for business.
But now let us turn to the West. It has become a cliché to point out that the gulf between the 1 per cent and the rest in the “developed” world has widened, is widening and ought to be diminished. Donald Trump stood for the presidency on a platform of making America great again. By this, he said, he meant providing more and better paid jobs for the white working class, and maybe the blacks, too, if they learned to keep a civil tongue in their heads. So what did he do? He passed generous tax reforms that benefited the rich in perpetuity, himself and his family included, while placing a strict time limit on marginal tax breaks for the poor.
That is what a caricatured developing world dictator would do.
In the UK, where the Government faces mounting criticism for putting its non-Brexit manifesto promises on a low-simmering back-burner, there is less obvious venality on display, but not much that is positive either. The assumption seems to be that the “just about managing” have been just about managing for years and have yet to take to the streets, so no need to get carried away.
But it was less than two years ago, on July 13, 2016, that Theresa May kicked off her ill-starred premiership by vowing outside the front door of Downing Street to create a better future for the hard-pressed majority of her fellow citizens.
This meant, she said, “fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others; If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white; If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university; if you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately; if you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man; if you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand; [and] if you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
She went on: “If you’re one of those … if you’re just about managing, I want to address you directly. I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
That was then and this is now, so how much has changed? The answer is, very little. Hardly anything. Understandably, the PM has been preoccupied with Brexit, but even if she was free to act on her own pledges, the likelihood is that, at most, she would throw a little bit of government cash at the worst and most blatant injustices while in general just hoping for the best. That was certainly her approach when at the Home Office.
Tony Blair was no different. New Labour was no different. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn would throw everything at the problem, including the kitchen sink, but in doing so would take Britain down the road to Venezuela-style chaos, which is probably not the best available solution.
At the root of the West’s problem is the immense power of the banking system and big business. It is (again) a cliché to point out that those in charge of banking, investment and top-end commerce are immensely wealthy, paying themselves millions of pounds a year and living like second-tier Russian oligarchs or minor Gulf princes. Open the property pages of any high-end publication and see the pleasure domes that are available (strictly cash-only) for prices in the £10m-£50m range. Then consider Grimsby, in Lincolnshire, or Stanley, in County Durham, where a two-up, two-down cottage will set you back as little as £50,000, assuming you’ve got the necessary five-grand deposit.
We cannot go on like this. That’s what everybody says, not just Corbyn and his enforcer John McDonnell, but Theresa May and Michael Gove – perhaps even Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose financial management company benefits from Russian investments and Indonesian abortion pills, or John Redwood, bolstered by the £180,000 a year he earns as a part-time financial strategist, who last year advised his clients to move their money out of the UK. But the fact is, nothing is different in 2018 over 2008 save that the banks have been placed on a more secure financial footing, to the benefit, most obviously, of their shareholders and top executives.
Look at London, the capital of our barely United Kingdom. Every day we read about how already enormous homes in Mayfair, Notting Hill and Belgravia are being turned into secret subterranean palaces. We read stories about the opulent lifestyles of the rich and famous. We look on impotently as whole streets of houses in what Margaret Thatcher said would be our property-owning democracy are bought up by rich foreigners from Russia, the Gulf states and Asia, to be rented out to ordinary people for prices they cannot afford.
You don’t have to be a socialist, still less a Marxist, to see that this is wrong and ultimately unsustainable. The rich talk of wholesale reform, pointing out that true liberty requires the right to become as rich as Croesus and that those who have made it to the top by the sweat of their keyboards deserve to be able lawfully, and with minimal tax implication, to pass on their enormous wealth to their children, who have done nothing to earn it.
In this context, the Grenfell Tower fire was a terrible warning. The anger engendered by this man-made tragedy in one of London’s richest boroughs is almost as palpable today as the flames were 12 months ago. If anything was a “burning injustice,” this was it.
The poor and the disadvantaged will only take so much before they vote in ever-larger numbers for Corbyn and demand that he implement his Socialist manifesto in full – which he will gladly do, with McDonnell ready to line the hedge-fund class metaphorically up against the wall, with his firing squad primed and ready.
If capitalism is to have a human face, it cannot be that of the hard right of the Conservative Party. The Tories have to come back to their avowed One-Nation stance. It is not enough for plump MPs from the shires to talk of the working poor as the salt of the Earth. The days when salt was a precious commodity have long passed. It cannot all be about Brexit. Those in power have to govern not just for the wealth-creators, but for the many millions of austerity-hit Britons who have been left behind in an increasingly top-heavy economy. If they can’t change their tune – and time is running out for them – don’t be surprised if Jeremy Corbyn emerges in May 2022 to make his own Downing Street Declaration.