The hole at the heart of high society that's breaking Britain

In quick succession the mighty powers that rule our nation have been routinely exposed as liars, cheats and thieves.

In 2008 it was the bankers and the crash of the global financial system swiftly followed by the continued paying out of multi-million pound bonuses. In 2009 it was the politicians and their dodgy expenses claims and in 2010 it was Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats betraying a whole generation of first-time voters by ditching their tuition fee plan in exchange for the trappings of power. Now in 2011 it is the tabloid media, hacking away at the very concept of human decency. We’ve never liked bankers, politicians or journalists but these three groups, who hold all the cards of power in this nation, have been exposed as being completely and utterly detached from the rest of us the (more than) 99% of the population whose lives are at the mercy of their actions.

What the News of the World (and it seems other papers) has done in chasing a good, juicy story is despicable. Yet whilst this particular behaviour – deleting messages on the phone of a murdered teenager to make space for more frantic messages, thus giving the hope to her family that she may still be alive – is painfully disturbing to all of us, the morals of the tabloid press were hardly saintly and untainted before this. The pages of the Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Mail have long been filled with hypocritical ranting about ‘moral outrages’. In the case of the latter they bemoan sexualisation of children, called for ‘lads magazines’ to be banished to the top shelves whilst putting topless girls on page 3 of their own publication, easily picked up at the front of the supermarket or left to be read by anyone who picks up a copy left on the train. All of these tabloids attack the modelling industry for encouraging teenage girls to aspire to ‘size zero’ figures only to highlight celebrities like Katy Perry or Britney Spears ‘piling on the pounds’ in photographs taken by pararazzi whilst they just enjoy what is supposed to be a private holiday. The Victim’s Commissioner has taken the tabloids to task for their hounding of Chris Jeffries, the innocent landlord of the late Joanna Yeates. They say it’s about trying to find justice for the murdered girl, in truth it was about inverting the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ all in the ruthless pursuit of selling more newspapers.

The newspaper industry has ignored the morals and ethics of a good society, stirring up divisions (immigration, benefit cheats) simply to increase sales. Worse still they go beyond the point of improving sales to take on a political role, trying to cajole readers into voting for particular parties, often the ones who will protect their livelihoods best.  Think of how they ditched Labour as it began to raise the top-rate of tax, they had been down with Blair because, as we know, New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about the super-rich’. From the journalists earning great above-national-average incomes up to the media owners who pick up mega-bucks annually these people are completely disconnected from the 95% of the population (and their readership) who earn less than £65,000-a-year. This is best displayed in the right-wing tabloids constant demand for George Osborne to scrap the 50p tax rate whilst a great many of their readers probably think the idea of those earning more than £150,000 a year paying 50% tax on the income they earn over that amount is a pretty fair idea (indeed polls back this as being Brown’s most popular decision as Prime Minister).

This disconnect is the wider point that underlies all of this self-centered, short-termist and uncaring activity, from bankers to politicians, tabloid journalism and beyond to footballers, pop stars and FTSE 100 Chief Executives. The income and wealth gap between the rich and the rest in the UK is at the highest level since the Victorian times and this gap breeds the kind of heartlessness that allowed bankers to trade electronic money with no care for the risk, politicians to claim for duck houses and profit from the sale of houses bought with taxpayers money and now newspaper editors to authorise the phone-hacking of dead children and the families of those who died as a result of war and terrorist attacks. This heartless high society, acting without care for the greater good, spun particularly out of control these last few years as it is now apparent that they have become such a tight-knit, interconnected group. The media moguls too close to the politicians and influencing policy, the politicians too close to the bankers, all to happy to trade laissez-faire regulation for the banks so long as they could proclaim ‘growth’ and spend the tax revenues on education and health. In the latter case at least Gordon Brown was motivated by a genuine want to improve the livelihood of the population, but the sad truth is that he was far too close to the bankers, fell for their charms, gave them whatever they wanted because they were driving his boom that in 2008 went catastrophically bust.

Why does this wealth gap cause heartlessness? Because it creates genuine gaps between the population, leading to disconnect. It goes wider than the dirty triangle of senior politicians, top bankers and media moguls. Adele, the pop star, might have a beautiful voice but her outspoken attack along the lines of ‘why should I have to give away half of my millions in tax’ was crass. While millions of people who are struggling to pay for food, energy, transport and their own tax bills scrape together money to buy tickets to her gigs she says is angry that for every £2m she collects this year £1m goes to subsiding public transport that SHE doesn’t use. How self-centered. She doesn’t use public transport so why should she pay tax to pay for it? I wonder how many use public transport to get to her gigs? Yet more importantly she ignores how her money will go beyond transport to pay for teachers, for policeman, nurses and doctors, child tax credits and aid for starving populations in Africa. Footballers are worse, threatening to leave because they are getting ONLY £100,000-a-week instead of £150,000 a week. £100,000-a-week! That is nearly four times the national average annual pre-tax income…every week, heaven forbid they don’t get another two times the national average income on top. It’s an everyman for himself attitude. Disconnected from a concept of social solidarity? Yes, but disconnected from the fundamental values that should bind our society together? Just ask John Terry, who upon parking his car in a disabled bay is reported to have said: ‘I can afford the fine’.

This disconnect rips apart our society. Cameron and his friends at the right-wing tabloids told us we were living in ‘Broken Britain’, talking about sink estates, welfare dependency and crime, now he tells us there’s no money left to fix it so we need to do it ourselves. How dare David Cameron talk of the Big Society, about strengthening communities? The strengthening we need is together as a nation, 99% of whom earn less than £150,000 a year against the unfairness of those earning £7m a year for singing, for playing football, for banking, for running a company. I’m not talking about Communism, or implementing a Socialist Workers’ Party manifesto but I am talking about responsibility and morals. I’m talking about the world of difference between reasonably earning £2m for being the very top of your game and being paid £7m or £8m as is the case now, and thinking about where that £5m difference could go (i.e. higher wages for the rest of the company’s employees).

I’ve long called for a higher National Minimum Wage and defended the 50p tax rate, I often propose ideas or solutions, policies I wish could be implemented to make a better, fairer UK, Europe or wider world but I have no comprehensive answer or quick-fix to solve the moral corrosion and rotted core of the top of our society. We are indeed living in ‘Broken Britain’ but it is the lack of responsibility, loss of morals and no sense of fair play at the top that is the cause as much, if not much more so, than scroungers and layabouts at the bottom.

In America, a society even more unequal than our own, morals have become perverted by another powerful pillar of society, one that has far less power in this country. The religious right, as evidenced by those who speak on the God channel, have adopted neo-liberal economics in the name of responsibility. The concept of the welfare state is, in-line with the thinking of the right-wing tabloids here, a recipe for dependency and nothing more. They have forgotten the very core of the Bible - where is their critique of greed? When Jesus threw the ‘money-changers’ out of the temple, I don’t think he meant he’d be absolutely fine if these ‘thieves’ carried on trading as they were as long as it was outside of God’s house and I certainly don’t think he would have believed such activity was the only reasonable route to prosperity for all mankind after all, he fed the 5,000, not fed himself 5,000 fish. At least here we have the Archbishop of Canterbury who understands this.

We need to crush this extreme greed at the top because it sets a horrendous example to the rest of us. Too many young people aspire to be ‘rich and famous’, often for no discernable talent. Too many dodge tax or steal wherever they can. Too many people harbour self-centred attitudes, focused on ‘what do I get?’, all too happy to spout their rights but take leave of their responsibilities. Yes, certainly this last point, has long been the concern of the right, but the solution of bringing together the community is flawed if it is based solely on the super-local as the Big Society suggests. We are a nation, in fact geographically not a very big one, it is time we behaved like one. Its no good bringing together the council estate or bringing together suburbia or the village in splendid isolation whilst a select few hide behind their gated communities shut off from those whose hard-work helps them accumulate their vast wealth. To correct our broken society we need to all come together and unite around that very basic idea that ultimately we are all humans and we are the same, we must share this country a little more fairly and if we can work out how to do so everyone will be happier not just that top 1%.