Friday 10 June 2022

Pinning the blame where it belongs


Being extremely rich should not, in itself, be a bar to serving as a government minister. What should act as much more of a bar, however, is an inability to even begin to understand the pressures on people for whom even a small drop in their income or a small increase in the costs of things they buy makes a huge difference. Unfortunately for the population at large, the two things do have a strong tendency to occur in tandem. It doesn’t even take vast wealth on the scale of that of the Chancellor’s household to make someone tone deaf to the needs of ordinary people; even the comparatively modest income of the PM, which puts him in the 99th percentile (i.e. he is paid more than 99% of the UK’s population), is enough to leave him floundering when it comes to the impact of his policies and statements on people.

Yesterday, he told us, in effect, that we must not expect our incomes to rise in line with inflation; a statement which amounts to telling us that we must accept a real-terms fall in our standard of living. Belt-tightening will inevitably look more than a little easier to bear for someone whose household maintains a stock of multiple types of bread than for one which is struggling to buy a single loaf. Most of us fall between those two extremes, but those closest to the highest end of the range seem to find it impossible to understand the pressures on those lower down the scale.

(As an aside, I’ve long believed that there is a good argument for setting MPs salaries at the average for the population as a whole (about £26,000 in today’s terms, although there would need to be additional travel and accommodation expenses to cover their costs of doing the job). It would incentivise them to do two things – firstly to try and lift the average salary of the population at large, and secondly to minimise the differences between the top and the bottom. We could give it an imaginative name – something like ‘levelling up’, maybe. The argument against has always been that we need to pay higher salaries to get the best people, but there are several answers to that. The first is simply ‘Boris Johnson’, disproof, if ever it were needed, that paying a high salary attracts the best people to the job; the second is that the process of selecting MPs (i.e. voting for the one with the right colour rosette on his or her lapel) in no way resembles a process of selecting for ability; and the third is that people attracted to the job because of the high salary may not always start out in the right frame of mind to see themselves as servants of the people.)

It's worth asking the question that Johnson obviously has no intention of answering directly – why exactly are we in a position where he is demanding that people accept a cut in living standards? When multiple factors are at play, it’s always difficult to sort out the relative impact of each, but we know at least some of them: the war in Ukraine; the aftermath of Covid; and Brexit. Some elements of this are outside the control of the UK government, but not all. And in every case, government actions have made things worse than they could otherwise have been. Energy price rises, for instance, have been more modest in some countries because their governments have chosen to make it so, and the Brexit decision to leave the single market and customs union and the associated impact on the supply chain is a deliberate and pre-meditated own goal. To an extent, it is not unreasonable for the government to say that they cannot control all of the events impacting on the cost of living, but they could do more to mitigate that impact, particularly for the most vulnerable. Saying ‘we’ll do more’ without being able to answer the obvious questions about ‘what’ and ‘when’ is no answer at all. It is, however, wholly unreasonable to expect the population at large to take a hit for government incompetence and ideology-driven policy making, which is what Johnson is, in effect, demanding.

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