There is an irritating trend I’ve noticed recently, which is that right wingers, exploitative companies and their associated commentators and PR people have discovered compassion for the poor. A number of examples have recently surfaced: a sample
- We must not label food accurately, or enforce decent standards of animal welfare, as these would drive up food prices. This would penalise poor people, as they spend a higher portion of their income on food, and are currently struggling with food price inflation.
- Green policies that aim to preserve our environment must be abandoned lest they put additional costs onto fuel bills. We are assured that the group wanting this is small, but remember Brexit. Especially as the appalling Nigel Farage has decided it is his next Crusade – it’s “power not poverty” he wants, for the benefit of the poor, of course.
- We must continue to allow private schools to claim charitable tax breaks, because this keeps their costs down. Any measure to change this concession would penalise normal hardworking families who are already scrimping to pay school fees to secure a decent education for their children.
- The BBC licence is a big expense for poor families, and we must restrain any inflationary increase to ease the burden on pensioners and the working poor
- Any attempt to claim money from energy companies currently making substantial profits would only be passed on to consumers – and would be a particular burden for those with low incomes. Hitting the profits of such companies would hurt investment in them, driving down the value of pensions and savings
- Asking people in large houses to pay more in property tax would penalise retired people who are asset rich but income poor. Widows would be forced to sell the family home in which they have raised their children and enjoyed family life over many years.
- Even, stunningly, that we mustn’t have too tight a squeeze on Russian oligarchs because economic collapse will make life more difficult for poor people in Russia.
Now, a number of points can be made here. The hypocrisy of removing green policies – where many measures would help the poor – was exposed in a recent article in the Guardian by George Monbiot. Fees for major private schools are currently equal to, or above, the mean household income in this country. They are not paid by average families scrimping on their Netflix subscription or economising on breakfast avocados. The proposed rise in BBC resources would have cost the average family less than one hundredth of one per cent of their household costs: compared with food or fuel, irrelevant, but useful in reducing rivalry to private media tycoons and truth seeking to failing governments. Money made by energy companies is way above what they were expecting, and come not from hard work or new discoveries but the windfall result of geopolitical factors and poor government planning. If a windfall tax reduced their profits to what was expected at the beginning of the financial year, the share price and contribution to pension funds would be exactly as expected. The Guardian recently put this argument well. As for property taxes – we in Britain have a low rate compared with (say) the USA, pensioners are no longer the poorest section of the population (least of all, pensioners in big houses), and many retired people consider downsizing. And the care that Russian billionaires show to the poor is legendary, and not in a good way.
There’s a sense, though, in which this is all irrelevant. The conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway comes to mind: “The rich are different to us, Ernest” – “Yes, Scott, they have more money”. The poor are different to us – they have less money. A government which was really concerned about their living standards would not help them with nit-picking policy changes that in reality favour the rich, but ensure that poor people had more money. Government would adapt the tax and social system so that it didn’t work against low income families, and support measures that placed the heaviest burdens on those most equipped to pay. If they don’t do that, we know the newly discovered compassion is empty and hypocritical nonsense.
Historical footnote: T’was ever thus. I recently watched a TV documentary about the building of the first canal in England – the Bridgewater Canal that linked the mines of the Duke of Bridgewater in Worsley to Manchester. This created a new and efficient link between the textile industry and the coal it needed. His Grace needed Parliamentary permission to purchase the land, and his pitch to MPs was that he was building the canal in order to lower the prices of coal and clothes for the poor. Such compassion, such public spirit. And making him the richest man in England was, I guess, just a happy by-product.