Friday, August 14, 2009

Entitlement in the UK

It's not just New Zealand which has politicians with a massive sense of entitlement - but also the UK. In the preamble to a story on the UK's terrible debt-collection industry (which naturally is doing well in the recession), Johann Hari highlights the disconnection of UK politicians from those they supposedly represent:

Sometimes it takes a casual phrase to really reveal the gap between a slice of our ruling class and the rest of us.

The Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan says that living on £64,000 a year – which puts him in the richest 4 per cent of the population – means a life on "rations", and "no one who's done anything" will want to live on it. Boris Johnson says wages for a second job of £250,000 are "chicken feed", even though they are more than what 99.99 per cent of us earn. (He must have an army of gargantuan chickens). David Cameron doesn't even know how many houses he owns, and his heiress wife says a windfall of up to £250,000 from selling a property is "nothing life-changing".

Yet out in the real Britain, the median wage is £23,000 a year. Half earn more; half earn less. Underneath this figure, there's another: the average personal debt is £29,500. As individuals, we owe more than we earn in a year. This is a relatively recent development, and it happened for an underlying structural reason.

That reason of course is neo-Liberalism, which channelled growth exclusively to those at the top of the heap - just as in New Zealand. Politicians (and those they compare their incomes to) benefited; the vast majority of people did not, and many were made actively worse off for the enrichment of the few.

The UK's politicians are actually worse paid than those in New Zealand. But because the people they compare themselves to - the aristocracy and those pulling down million-pound bonuses in the financial industry - are wealthier, their expectations and sense of entitlement are much higher. And so they fiddle their expenses, dodge their taxes, take second jobs which create massive conflicts of interest for themselves, and see nothing wrong with soliciting cash for questions, cash for amendments, cash for policy. And then they're shocked that people see them as corrupt and self-serving.

In the long-run, the UK probably needs to pay its politicians more, simply to reduce the incentive for corruption (and David Cameron's dark warnings about cutting Ministerial pay is a step in the wrong direction). But that can't happen with the current pool of scum - public resistance will be too great. Westminster needs a cleanout, including real electoral reform, to restore public faith in politicians. And the longer they resist it, the worse it is going to hurt when it comes.