Who Should We Value in our Society?

March 13, 2022

Who should we value in our society?  The Key workers who kept our communities going throughout the pandemic, or the Russian oligarchs whose dirty money sloshes around the City of London? The health service workers who risked their lives to look after our loved ones, or the PM’s political cronies?

“Sir Gavin Williamson.”  If you don’t remember him, I’ll remind you.  Sacked as Defence Secretary by Theresa May for leaking about Huwei and the UK’s 5G network.  He denies it.  Then sacked by Mr Johnson in September last year, as Education Secretary this time.  Remember 2020 A-levels fiasco?  The dodgy algorithm that marked down kids from disadvantaged areas?  That was Mr Williamson, now Sir Gavin.  It brings to mind Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

The PM didn’t even attempt to justify Sir Gavin’s knighthood.  When he was Tory Chief Whip, he kept a tarantula in his office.  More than one Conservative politician I’ve worked with has described him in terms that are unprintable in a respectable newspaper.  So why knight him?  Maybe it was services to Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign.  Either that or “Services to ineptitude.” 

The Government now talks tough on Russia.  But the cosying up to Kremlin-backed oligarchs has earned Britain’s capital city the nickname Londongrad. Transparency International estimates that Kremlin-connected dirty money has snaffled up £1.5 billion worth of luxury property.  London property has provided fertile ground to bury suspicious wealth for years. 

It’s not the only indulgence.  Since 2008, 12,000 of the global super rich have purchased indefinite UK residency via the “golden visa” scheme.  It’s described as a gold-plated invitation to launder money.  A £2m “investment” buys residency within five years.  £10m shortens it to two years.  The “investment” can be buying property.  And later selling it.  Through shell companies.  Compare and contrast with the Home Office’s abysmal visa performance for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.  

I’m not a fan of the honours system.  At least not for leading politicians and wealthy businesspeople.  These jobs come with enough prestige or money.  Sometimes both.  What about the charity volunteers?  What about those who really keep the country running, but go unnoticed, and barely rewarded?  Bus and train drivers, refuse workers, environmental health inspectors, social care workers, NHS staff, classroom assistants and teachers.  All in the front line through the pandemic. 

Austerity meant a lost decade for pay.  Council care workers in 2021 are down more than £1,600 a year in real terms compared to 2010.  Their latest pay offer is 1.75%, while inflation surges to 8%.  Nurses’ real wages are down more than £2,700 a year since 2010, but are getting just 3%.  Yet billionaires got 54% richer through the pandemic. 

I’m sure you’re all too aware that household energy bills are rocketing by an average of £700 next month, and a further £1000 in the Autumn.  But it’s not costing any more to pump it out of the ground.  Prices are rising by 54%, but workers in those industries are not getting a 54% pay rise.  Someone, somewhere is making an absolute fortune out of this.  I’ll bet dimes to dollars it’s billionaires. 

The Spring Statement is next week, 23rd March.  We’ll see whose side the Chancellor is on.  Will he watch millions of Britons slide into poverty?  Choosing between heating and eating, trapping people in a cycle of debt?

Or will he cancel the National Insurance rises – taxes on working people?  Restore the £20 a week Universal Credit taken away from 6 million families last October, 66,000 in North of Tyne.  Will he uprate benefits for families and people with disabilities in line with inflation?  Do anything about the 2.5 million people so desperate they used food banks last year? 

I hope I’m wrong, but my guess Mr Sunak will say Britain can’t afford it.  I disagree.  A wealth tax on Britain’s richest 1% would raise £70bn to £130bn per year.  Anyone with net assets over £3.4 million would pay 1% of their wealth, each year.  So if your house, shares, savings, all add up to £4 million, you pay £6000 a year.  Sounds fair to me. 

What Britain can’t afford is the rich getting richer while poverty crushes our people.

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 14 March 2022