Inequality worthy of the court of the Sun King

There was an excellent piece in yesterday’s Observer by Will Hutton, based on his new book Them & Us: Politics, Greed & Inequality – Why we need a fair society.

In the piece Hutton, ever a master with the surgically targetted fact, depicts a British society so deeply riven by inequality that only the most egregious examples of social decadence and ostentation — the collapsing Roman empire, or France under Louis XIV — seem to do it justice. For instance, 47,000 people in this country have an average pre-tax income of £780,000 a year. Another 420,000 have pre-tax incomes of between £100,000 and £350,000. Sir Philip Green spent £4m on his son’s bar mitzvah and £5m on his own 50th birthday party. Venture capitalist Ronald Cohen – one-time adviser to Gordon Brown, and non-exec Chair, by the way, of Bridges Venture, the social investment fund – extended his £15m mansion with a £1m underground swimming pool…

On the other hand, 10 million adults in Britain earn less than £15,000 a year.

Hutton concludes that we need a fundamentally fairer society. It would be hard to argue with that. But oddly he seems to believe that capitalism can be challenged — or perhaps shamed — into helping to deliver this. He calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for British capitalism — along the lines of the commission which examined apartheid crimes in South Africa — to investigate how and why over the past decade capitalism has produced the greatest financial and social crisis this country has seen since the 1920s.

Political and social change of the scale required in order to deliver social and economic justice in Britain cannot be achieved by ‘atonement’, by ‘apportioning blame’, by what Hutton calls, in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s term, ‘social closure’. Frankly, this is politics as day-time TV, a nation’s bankers on the analyst’s couch. They would be only too pleased. We’d probably wind-up being invoiced for the therapy sessions too.

Hutton’s analysis is bang-on, but his solutions amount to little more than hand-wringing. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

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