Occasionally, a chance event, a bit of news in a newspaper or a snippet of TV confronts us and puts into context some of the many unacceptable and bizarre aspects of our modern society. I was reminded of this yesterday.
|Nigella Lawson & Charles Saatchi - £76,000|
a month credit card spend viewed as "trivial"
I was thinking about this as I returned home and when I got home I read in the Guardian of the latest bizarre and worrying exposures in the Nigella Lawson/Charles Saatchi court case involving the use of company credit cards by two of the employees. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular trial issues or the exposures about Nigella Lawson being a drug user I am more concerned about some of the facts that seem to have emerged. I read that the court was told by Saatchi’s accountant that “Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson considered monthly credit card bills of tens of thousands of pounds run up by their assistants to be "trivial matters", with Saatchi becoming concerned only when the sums reached an average of £76,000 a month...”. Figures like this are eye watering, offensive and obscene. They make the rewards of the ordinary man and woman, struggling to pay their bills - and even the moderately “well off” - quite inconsequential. Indeed, they also cast a mocking disdain over the lives and worth of ordinary people. How can people like Saatchi and Lawson conceivably have any grip or insight into the ordinary man and woman when this is the world that they inhabit where £76000 a month is considered “trivial”? I thought of the lady in the village shop. Sadly, however, in the UK society of today this is not unusual – the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening exponentially.
A few weeks ago, when public outrage was at its height about the escalating cost of gas and electricity to consumers and when the big energy companies were putting up their prices and seeking to justify these, every newspaper, every news programme, every politician and media analyst had an opinion. Whatever the rights (if there be any) and wrongs of energy costs there was one item that attracted my attention. The chief executive of Centrica, Sam Laidlaw, announced – presumably in an effort to gain public approval – that he would be foregoing his bonus package of £2.6 million. Now, at one level I have certain sympathy for Mr Laidlaw – he was clearly endeavouring to show his unease with the very large bonus that he was entitled to and by foregoing it this would, hopefully, show that his sympathies were with financially squeezed consumers. The poor man was damned if he did take his bonus and in this case damned if he didn’t because I’m sure that there were many, like me, who whilst applauding his action, at the same time seriously queried why it should be that anyone in our society should be offered such a large reward on top of their very high salary. The bonus was described as an “incentive package” – does this mean that people like Mr Laidlaw don’t try very hard unless they get huge amounts of “extra” money? One can only assume that to be the case since otherwise the packages would not be offered in the first place and if indeed that is the case then I can only question whether these are the right people for the job – that they only work at their best when huge amounts of money are paid to them over and above their already agreed salary. And that brings in my second point; namely that it cannot be otherwise that no-one (yes, I mean no-one – bankers, footballers, pop stars, CEOs etc.) can conceivably be “worth” this amount of money in relation to others. That Mr Laidlaw can afford to be so magnanimous that he turns down his £2.6 million begs the question how much money does he have? The eye watering amount that he can “turn down” is a profound insult to millions of people up and down the country – especially in this time of austerity – when ordinary people are being asked to tighten their belt and important money is being denied to important public services. For the vast majority of the country a tiny fraction of the money so easily refused by Mr Laidlow would be a huge fortune and difficult for them to comprehend. The whole thing sheds an unpleasant light upon the state and values of our modern society.
The worrying thing is that these mega rich are the shakers and movers of society – the Saatchi’s, the Lawsons, the Laidlows et al are the people who wine, dine and party with senior politicians and who make decisions and have influence on our behalf – while most of the rest of the population metaphorically stand out in the cold and press their noses to the window while they gaze inside at the merry Dickensian scene. We have apparently not moved far in the past century and a half since Dickens wrote his scathing social commentaries. These are the sort of people like Peter Mandelson, a senior Labour Party politician and government minister, who a few years ago said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and then added, as an afterthought, when he was criticised “as long as they pay their taxes”. Sadly, of course, tax havens and clever accountants ensure that these people rarely pay their due in taxes and Mandelson’s comments sound hollow – coming after spending a holiday with Russian oligarchs and other international shakers and movers on the Greek islands.
But few of us are immune, as George Monbiot reminded us in the Guardian earlier this week. The mega rich influence us all and make us all envious and greedy and want more. Monbiot rightly commented upon the latest Christmas must haves as advertised in the Guardian magazine:
“.........Saturday's magazine contained what looks like a shopping list for the last days of the Roman empire. There's a smart cuckoo clock, for those whose dumb ones aren't up to the mark; a remotely operated kettle; a soap dispenser at £55; a mahogany skateboard (disgracefully, the provenance of the wood is mentioned by neither the Guardian nor the retailer); a "pappardelle rolling pin", whatever the hell that is; £25 chocolate baubles; a £16 box of, er, garden twine. Are we so bored, so affectless, that we need to receive this junk to ignite one last spark of hedonistic satisfaction? Have people become so immune to fellow feeling that they are prepared to spend £46 on a jar for dog treats or £6.50 a bang on personalised crackers, rather than give the money to a better cause..........”.
We are all the time being encouraged to jump onto the bandwagon of excess, to lose all understanding of value or worth - £46 to buy a jar to keep your dog biscuits in, £16 for a box of garden twine, personalised crackers........ as Monbiot reflects it is an orgy in the best tradition of the declining years of the Roman empire! If you want any further proof of that read the reports today of the orgy of buying at Asda stores on the awful American import "Black Friday" where retailers offer items at knock down prices. The only problem is that it resulted in fights, arrests, unacceptable behaviour as thousands scrambled and fought for what they perceived as a bargain Christmas must have - for example, monster size TVs which are totally inappropriate, tasteless and unnecessary in the average sized home. The orgy was repeated across the USA where, I understand, guns and knives were the weapon of choice as you fought other customers to ensure that you got your bargain in the sales at Walmart.
What have we become?
What have we become?
|Asda's Black Friday in Bristol UK - this man had to be restrained|
when he became violent because there was a limit on how many TVs
he could buy!
When we read of and see the excesses in society compounded and promoted by the Satchis, the Lawsons, the Mandelsons, the Laidlows, the professional footballers and pop stars, the bankers and the city traders it should come as no surprise that we are, to a degree, all caught up in and influenced by it. It becomes the accepted code and gains its own ethical justification and moral acceptability. I do not believe that people like Lawson, Saatchi, Laidlow and the rest are intrinsically bad - after all, who would not turn down £2.6 million or an allowable credit card spend of £76,000 each month if it was offered? But how can people in receipt of this sort of lifestyle have any understanding of the rest of society. I am, by many standards, "well off" but we still have to count the pennies to make sure that we don't go into the red at the end of each month. And, I still find it difficult to comprehend how difficult it must be for the person who does run out of money before pay day, I did feel guilty when I watched the woman in the shop return her items of shopping, and when I watch the poor of Africa on my TV I cannot begin to understand and feel the the life that they accept as normal but which for me would be quite unsustainable. So, I do not believe that the mega rich can even begin to comprehend the lives and problems of the majority of those on the planet - and that is dangerous, for, as I have said, they are shakers and movers who either are, or have access to, those in power.
Already we can see a return to the sort
of Gordon Gecko society that prevailed in the late 80s and early 90’s where “Loads a money” became
the watchword and where young men and women saw fast expensive cars as
an entitlement and a just reward for fulfilling their meaningless City tasks.
This morning I read that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in a speech
yesterday commented that inequality was essential to foster "the spirit of envy" and that
greed should be seen as a "valuable
spur to economic activity”. Gordon
Gecko’s oft quoted words “Greed is good” ride
again. Indeed, Johnson, in his usual flippant and light hearted way took his logic further – saying something that even
Gordon Gecko might have blanched at – namely that inequality should be
furthered by pouring more resources into those with high IQs. This, according
to Johnson’s warped and amoral logic
would, he said (in a bizarre and flippant metaphor) ensure that more people, “like
cornflakes in a packet rise to the top”. I have no doubt that Saatchi, Lawson,
Mandelson and Laidlow would echo that sentiment. I would also have no doubt
that Boris Johnson would equally and greatly approve of the actions, rewards
and views of Laidlow, Lawson, Saatchi and Mandelson. Having said that, however
I wonder how Johnson squares this with his declaration that he is a Christian –
after all, greed and envy are two of the seven deadly sins! I wonder how many
of the other deadly sins Johnson and his ilk would feel might benefit our
society – how about a bit of lust or a dash of sloth and one could not, of
course, do without a lot of pride and
gluttony followed by an after course of wrath. I suspect that in the mad and
perverted world inhabited by the Lord Mayor of London the answer to that
question would be lust, gluttony, sloth and the rest are conditions only displayed
by the lower orders - those of us who do not possess an IQ of 130 and are, therefore,
thoroughly undeserving. For those beautiful and gifted people who sit at the Lord Mayor’s table – the Saatchis,
Lawsons, Mandelsons, Laidlows and the rest - they are merely displaying fine
taste and spurring on the economy, not committing any of the deadly sins - that, they might remind us is a failing and duty of the lower orders. "Pass me another slice of your delicious chocolate cake Nigella , my dear" I hear drift out through the window and into the ears of those standing out in the cold, noses pressed to the window, envious of the good fortune and grandness of these illustrious people.
|Boris Johnson - he likes to portray himself as a lovable|
buffoon and people are taken in. He is in fact devious,
calculating and very dangerous. Watch what might happen
if he attains real power.
What have we become?
Governments of course wrestle with this problem – what to do about it? No one is prepared to offend the mega rich - we are told they will run off to some far tax haven if we tax them too much or don’t pay them their bonus; the premiership footballer will take his talents to Italy or Spain, the banker and CEO will depart to financial centres new in Singapore, Hong Kong or New York where greed is supposedly “good”. For my part there seems no need to wrestle, it is not a difficult problem. Let them go to where they think that the grass is greener - even if by it we are the losers then at least we will have the knowledge that we did the right thing. The role of government is not only to govern but to take a stand and in the end do what is the morally right. If our government cannot act from a moral standpoint then what are we to do and what have we become? In the UK we are less able to change what happens in Africa or some other desperately poor part of the world but we can do something about what happens here - just as Americans can do something about what happens there - but the will to do this needs to be present. Sadly I do not believe it is and I further believe that as greed permeates wider society it is becoming less so. But in thinking this I am also reminded of a comment from Joseph Chamberlain the 19th and early 20th century politician and statesman: “My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for the great majority; I don’t care if it all becomes in the process less pleasant for the well to do minority” . Chamberlain’s comment seems to me to be a pretty good basis upon which to take firm action in our own countries.
Today I read that Barak Obama, his wife Michelle and his children were handing out food in a Washington food bank – one of the largest in the American capital and close to the seat of government. One cannot but applaud the American President for getting out into the streets and meeting some of the less well off in his society. But the whole thing is quite obscenely bizarre and at the same time totally indefensible; that the most powerful man in the world, the leader of by far the richest nation in the world is giving out food within yards of the centre of American government. It is quite unbelievable. That the richest nation in the world cannot effectively ensure that its population is well fed and that the President feels obliged to do this on “Thanksgiving Day” whilst at the same time presiding over the most unequal society on the planet is surely a damning indictment upon how we in the west conduct ourselves. But I have no doubt that Charles Saatchi would merely think these matters “trivial”, that Boris Johnson would believe that people needing food handouts had only themselves to blame for not having an IQ of 130+, that Peter Mandelson would comment that he was “intensely relaxed” with the situation as he popped another piece of caviare into his mouth and I suppose that the lovely (I use the word in its loosest form) Nigella Lawson would simply advise the lined up poor waiting for their food handout that they should pop out to the shop to buy her latest cookery book – so that they can make a lovely rich chocolate cake for their next dinner party! In 1789 as the hungry Parisian mob crowded around the gates of the Palace of Versailles the Queen reputedly advised them to go and eat cake if they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, it seems, is alive and well in London and Washington. Our technology might have improved since that date but perhaps our basic humanity hasn't.
Solving this situation is not a difficult problem – it is simply one that needs acting upon. It is a moral imperative not an economic problem. Its seriousness and implications are such that the possibility that a few might get their feelings (and bank balances) hurt is inconsequential. Joseph Chamberlain recognised this a century ago but we have largely lost this desire and resolve to take strong action. As the old saying goes “we are failing to see the wood for the trees” - we are not addressing the real problem of too few people having too much wealth. Instead, governments tinker round the edges but fail to grasp the nettle and do something. The problem in recent years has been blamed on a number of factors – most notably the banking crisis. But this is largely a “cop out” – it gives those with the responsibility for leading us and taking the hard decisions an effective way out. Everything can be blamed on the crisis and meanwhile Saatchi, Lawson, Johnson, Mandelson, Laidlow and Johnson and the rest continue on their merry way. But it is not new, the banking crisis has only exacerbated it. The culture of greed that has become endemic in the latter years of the 20th and early 21st century was envisaged over 50 years ago by Nye Bevan the great Labour politician. Bevan one of the architects of the welfare state said “ Soon, if we are not prudent, millions of people will be watching each other starve to death through expensive television sets”. How very true Bevan’s forecast has become, and as we saw yesterday on Black Friday in America and the UK people fighting in Walmart and Asda stores because they all wanted 50 inch TVs how prophetic! The day Bevan forecast has, it seems arrived - we have a society today that sees some individuals regarding £76,000 each month as trivial or a £2.6 million bonus as essential or “turndownable”; we have people who are willing to pay £46 for a jar to keep the dog biscuits in whilst in that very same society we have a rapidly increasing number of people dependent upon food banks, or having to return their shopping at the till, or needing to seek out loans to get them through the next few days and put food in the bellies of their family, and inexplicably we see the President of the world’s richest nation giving out food to his nation’s many less fortunate – good to see, but it should not be necessary. I wonder if Obama or Saatchi or Mandelson or Johnson or Lawson or Laidlow reflected upon this bizarre and indefensible situation or upon the words of Nye Bevan as they lay in their beds last night? I suspect not.
There is something very clearly very wrong.