By Libby Purves in THE TIMES, 3 December 2018
To the sound of keening and rattling bones, Mark Carney predicted that a no-deal Brexit would mean rocketing interest rates and a 30 per cent drop in house prices. I was in the company of some people of my generation and one said flippantly, “Fine by me! Interest up, so decent income off the Isas at last. And with a third off house prices, the kids can buy flats!”
He laughed, not really meaning it. Like anyone with a functional heart and brain, he knows that disaster, repossession, homelessness and desperation for the many are never good news for the luckier few. When you share a nation, mass schadenfreude doesn’t work. “Trickle-down” prosperity is often a myth but the poisonous miasma of rising-damp rot is a nasty reality. When poorer citizens shiver in neglect, those above feel the chill.
So if you’ve got any sense, to call for social justice and a far narrower prosperity gap is not just a matter of humane compassion or Christian precept (admirable though all that is). It serves self-preservation too. Politicians should remind us of this but hardly ever do. Instead, we get voices from the right offering tax cuts, privatisations, thoughtless outsourced “efficiencies” and an ever-shrinking level of state responsibility, heedless of how nasty that will make the country.
The left, meanwhile, emits virtue-signalling pieties and bitter contemptuous shaming of anyone remotely comfortable. Nobody ever says, “Look, dumbo, what serves the poorest serves us all. Let’s just even things out a bit, for everyone’s sake.”
Life on what you might call the middle-class island, leafy and gracious, can only grow less and less comfortable when the seas around are rising and fellow citizens struggling with sharks and tempests. Maybe the ultra-rich can preserve their artificial lives for a while, in gated estates with paid security guards to usher them to their private jets: a miserable existence behind barred windows, barely living in their country at all. Visitors to Brazil or Johannesburg will have noticed how glum that is.
The supposedly secure passer-by is depressed, at worst alarmed, by walking past homeless sleepers and addicts on the streets, and roving, angry youths at dusk. Even the most selfish must shudder in fear for those they love when the abyss of ruin and misery yawns in so many faces. A country with brutal economic divisions is never a happy one. Don’t trust me on that: compare the World Bank figures on countries with the least inequality with the UN’s happiness index. Snap!
Nor is the income gap quite the whole story. Everyone may move up and down the wealth scale through life, and what makes that bearable is not just intelligently deployed welfare for the poorest, but common provision from a common purse. Education, housing, physical and mental health services, policing, progressive prisons, firefighters, libraries, playgrounds, public transport, decent roads, safe parks, public playing fields, support for the arts: everyone needs those things.
The luckiest can pay for private substitutes but ruinously, precariously and often less efficiently. Face it, the Waitrose and food bank queues are not from different species. They have interests in common. We all live on the same rock, breathing the same air.
The nearest a politician came to expressing the obvious and vital truth about the delusive fragility of the middle-class island was Neil Kinnock in his failed campaign of 1983. He warned businesses about the obvious effect of declining consumer power, and deplored fuel taxes that “the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford”. But he went on to predict the wider miseries of neglecting public services: danger on the streets, the “curfew of fear”, the home-bound life as transport subsidies shrink. He cried: “I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to get old.” That’s the way to do it: appeal to universal self-interest as well as social altruism. Remind us that our needs bind us together. Play, if so inclined, a verse of Joan Baez singing There but for Fortune. Tell us.
We need it. Right now, enragingly, public discourse is clogged up either with obsessive worry about customs duties or philosophical nitpicking on topics such as whether hate is a crime or gender determined by biology. Meanwhile, pride in common provision suffers. There is a combination of inattention and organisational incompetence (as in the chaos of universal credit) and a prim fiscal “austerity” largely fed by a dread of upsetting affluent people and companies by taxing them more.
There is a lot to do. Brexit has blocked out the sun for too long, and neither party can tear itself away from the subject and its ghastly protagonists for long enough to focus on the nation’s domestic harmony. In a few weeks we may know what is going to happen next. But whatever becomes of our national prosperity, we need to get a damn sight better at sharing it. For everyone’s sake.