News Flash: Conservatives Discover Inequality (at Least in the UK)
Inequality in Britain, the only developed nation in the world with an economic divide that rivals the gap in the United States, came under attack last week -- from the country's Conservative Party. The British "financial gap between the richest and the poorest," charged a top Conservative leader, Chris Grayling, in a nationally hyped speech, now stands "at its widest for generations."
"The gap between the life expectancy of the richest and the poorest is now at its widest since the Victorian era," Grayling would go on to add. "There could be no clearer indicator of a society that is getting things wrong." Such a declaration -- from a top conservative -- would be almost unimaginable in the United States, where right-wingers typically either deny the reality of inequality or minimize its impact. Indeed, this past spring, new federal research revealed a "large and growing" gap between the life expectancy of rich and poor Americans, and no top conservatives made any public fuss.
So what makes top conservatives in the UK more inequality-sensitive? Credit that "sensitivity" to the dynamics of partisan politics. In the UK, conservatives don't have to take the blame for recent surges in British inequality. Inequality has soared over the last decade with the Conservative Party's top rival, the Labor Party, running the show.
Tony Blair and his "New Labor" allies took parliamentary control in 1997. Right from the start, they distanced themselves from "old" Labor Party priorities -- like discouraging the concentration of wealth. New Labor, noted Blairite powerbroker Peter Mandelson early on, would be "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes."
New Labor would end up ""intensely relaxed" even when the rich didn't pay any taxes. Under Blair, the world's billionaires made London one of their favorite tax havens, and the Labor Party blew no whistle.
By 2007, the wealth of Britain's 1,000 wealthiest had nearly quadrupled in just a decade. The new British super rich, the Compass think tank observed last year, are "distorting society and recreating Victorian levels of class distinctions as conspicuous consumption, obscene financial rewards, and a new servant class are returning after an absence of over a century."
Britain's poor, meanwhile, are enjoying no similar golden age. Blair had pledged to have child poverty poverty halved by 2010. Child poverty last year actually increased -- by 100,000 kids.
Tony Blair left office in 2007, but his spirit still guides the ruling Labor Party. Blairites remain unrepentant about their relaxed reaction to Britain's ever grander private fortunes.
"It would be a good thing for our country if there were more millionaires in Britain not fewer," Labor Party Business Secretary John Hutton declared earlier this year. "Our overarching goal that no one should get left behind must not become translated into a stultifying sense that no one should be allowed to get too far ahead." But letting a rich few get too far ahead, New Labor's critics counter, stretches the social fabric. A fabric stretched too far eventually tears. Society loses all social cohesion.
"The rise of the super-rich, and their capacity to outbid others in the competition for houses, schools, space and possessions, has produced a new definition of success," Guardian commentator Jenni Russell observed earlier this year, that leaves middle-class people "increasingly conscious of living in a harsh world" where everyone always seems to be on their own. In this environment, inequality "eats away" at community. Middle class parents feel they can't risk their "children falling to the bottom." They find themselves hoarding what they have "rather than contributing more to the common pot."
All this is convincing many British advocates for the poor that the UK, to move ahead as a healthy society, needs to start actively discouraging the concentration of their nation's wealth.
Conservative Party leaders, for their part, may be talking about an intolerable gap between rich and poor, but their program to foster "community cohesion," as spelled out last week by spokesman Chris Grayling, zeroes in on the bottom, not the top. Grayling's inequality-busting gameplan features "a crackdown to get young people into work and training," especially in "gang-crime areas."
The conservatives, in other words, seem willing to give the rich the same free pass that New Labor has been extending, all in the name of concentrating energies on helping those at society's bottom.
But that's not enough, notes the Guardian's Jenni Russell, because we're "all social beings, and we assess our worth by looking at those around us."
Britain's lawmakers, Russell stresses, need to be bold enough to really tax the wealthy. The UK simply cannot afford, she concludes, to let the fortunes of the rich be "the standard against which the rest of us are measured."
That wisdom just might hold true on both sides of the Atlantic.