Britain: Amid austerity, rich get richer

May 24, 2014

For the past five years, we have heard a great deal of rhetoric from British politicians about the “tough choices” that the financial crisis has imposed on the nation.

Again and again, we heard that this crisis affected everyone equally, and that all of us were rowing together to put it right and share the burden and hardship.

Most of this came from the government, but not all. Though the Labour opposition fretted about “unfairness”, and the “squeezed middle” or the “cost of living crisis”, it also promised it would not reverse any Coalition cuts if it won the next election and would in fact continue to oversee the process of “austerity”.

Naturally, there were cynics among us who suspected that austerity was a lie and a fraud. And on May 18 the Sunday Times provided fairly unequivocal evidence that this was the case when it published its annual “rich list”.

It found that Britain's 1000 richest individuals have doubled their wealth in the past five years, from £249 billion (about $444 billion) in 2009 to a combined total of £519 billion.

They include Philip Green, who lives most of the year in Monaco and has evaded £285 million in taxes by channelling dividend payouts through a number of offshore accounts, including his wife’s. This is the same Philip Green who was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron as special advisor on how to cut public spending by avoiding “waste”.

Philip Beresford, who compiles the list, said: “While some may criticise them, many of these people are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth for the country.”

Some do indeed criticise them, though such critics are generally absent from the national press and the country’s political class.

Apart from a few rhetorical raised eyebrows, none of the papers that commented on the “rich list” story appear to have found anything particularly untoward about the fact that those who have the most have increased their wealth during a time of (supposedly) general crisis, while ever-more stringent cuts have been imposed on the national wealth available to the rest of the population, particularly those at the bottom of the pile.

In January this year, the Labour-led Derbyshire County Council, where I live, announced proposals make £157 million worth of cuts from its budget by 2018, including £36.7 million in 2014-15. These include:

• A £9 million cut in the funding of housing-related support services that help vulnerable people, such as drug addicts and alcoholics, maintain a home where they can live safely, by helping them to manage finances, pay bills, or manage their health.

• Raising the eligibility threshold at which the elderly qualify for council care from a “higher moderate” level of need to a “substantial” level of need.

• Charging the 1100 people who use council services for their transport to day care centres.

• Cutting the number of mobile libraries (essential in rural areas) and the number of libraries opening hours.

• Cutting the Community Safety Project Fund, which attempts to tackle anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and re-offending rates.

Every county and city will have its own list, and some are experiencing an even harsher cuts. But the general pattern is the same everywhere.

The state is inexorably abandoning its responsibilities to the poorest, most marginalised and vulnerable people in society ― responsibilities that ought to be the hallmarks of a humane and civilised society.

And while the share of the nation’s wealth that ought to be devoted to the common good has been relentlessly drained away, men and women with more wealth than most of us would need if we lived five lifetimes have been acquiring even more of it.

None of this was inevitable. It was allowed to happen and made to happen because of political and moral choices that were made, and created divisions of wealth that would make Louis XIV seem like a social democrat.

[Abridged from Infernal Machine.]

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