Friday, 14 February 2014

Perception and reality

In his latest contribution to the question of the constitutional future of the UK, Labour’s shadow Secretary of State, Owen Smith, talked of the Union as a way to ‘pool risk and share rewards’.  I’ve long thought that, in pragmatic economic terms, that is potentially one of the strongest arguments for union (at any level).
There is a problem, however, in moving from the theoretical to the practical.  The argument falls down as soon as those at whom it is aimed start to feel that they are getting less than their fair share of the rewards and more than their fair share of the risks.  When that point is reached, the argument neatly inverts; the very lack of fairness in a union becomes an argument against it.
Now, as things currently stand, it is pretty clear to me that those of us who believe both that risk and rewards are currently being shared unequally, and that that situation is unlikely to change, are in a minority.  I may believe – and I know that I’m not alone in this – that the majority viewpoint flies in the face of all the empirical evidence, but for whatever reason, the majority still seem to believe either that the peripheral nations and regions of the UK are getting a fair deal, or else that the best way to address the unfairness is to maintain the union. 
Actually, I suspect that it is the second of those two beliefs which is the stronger; I find it hard to conclude that people really cannot see and feel the unfairness which they are experiencing, and if that is so, it must mean that they believe that it is more likely to be addressed within the UK than in some other arrangement.
The obvious question that follows is why people can see the unfairness in the way risks and rewards are shared, and still believe that carrying on as we are is the best way to resolve that.  Two reasons in particular strike me as having some resonance.
The first is that the unfair shares of risk and reward aren’t solely – or even primarily – geographical.  They are also to do with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.  Those few may happen to be largely concentrated in one corner of the UK, but they aren’t exclusively so, and it is their personal control of the wealth, rather then their mere location, which is the more important factor.
And the second is that there is still a UK-wide party which is perceived to be supportive of a degree of redistribution.  For some of us, this too may fly in the face of the empirical evidence – after all, the concentration of wealth, in both personal and geographical terms, happened just as much under Labour as it has under the Tories.  It is, nevertheless, a perception which persists, and statements such as those made by Smith last week serve to reinforce that perception.
That ultimately underlines the real disservice which Labour performs - giving the impression that they’re in favour of fairer sharing of risk and reward in order to get into government, and then presiding over growth in inequality when in government.  When will people see through it?

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