Britain’s dangerous social divide

Culture secretary Maria Miller’s over-claimed mortgage interest says a great deal about the social divide in Britain – a divide that is accentuated by the power which wealth gives to buy the services of solicitors, accountants and other expensive professionals.

Despite all the negative publicity about MPs’ expenses since journalist Heather Brooke, writing in the Daily Telegraph, revealed multiple abuses in 2009, the dominance of legalism over an accepted ethical code seems to send highly paid people on a quest for loopholes.

People struggling from day to day on small, inadequate incomes are corralled outside loophole land, which is home to “The New Few”, as Ferdinand Mount terms Britain’s oligarchy in his 2012 book Power and Inequality in Britain Now: The New Few or a Very British Oligarchy. Ferdinand, more formally William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet, is cousin to David Cameron’s mother Mary, and thus at the heart of Establishment Britain. He knows the world of privilege.

He writes: “It is only in our own time, though, that a sharpening inequality of income has been accompanied by a pervading contempt for those who are at the bottom of the ladder and may have less chance of climbing a few rungs than their parents had – and less inclination to try, too. The problem is not just that social mobility has slowed down in recent years. Even if equality of opportunity were more fluid and effective than it is today, it would not be enough. A reasonably contented society must have a sense of relationship between all its citizens”. [1]

The loophole-lookers often, too often, give the impression that they don’t care what those outside the charmed circle think of their income-maximising activities. They have lost a sense of fellow feeling with those who are less fortunate financially.

This rupture may be increasing the pressures which are cracking the United Kingdom apart, a possibility to which the oligarchs may not devote much attention. Not that Maria Miller MP is anything like an oligarch, of course. Her mortgage interest claims would have seemed pretty routine in the days before Heather Brooke’s investigations, and according to the parliamentary Committee on Standards, there are only minor errors with them when examined under current rules.

It is not so much the minister’s claims under the Additional Costs Allowance scheme that reflects Mr Mount’s two nations (of very unequal size), but the well-documented efforts made by her representatives to stonewall the investigation, and to attempt to warn off, ever so politely but very firmly, the journalist Holly Watt, who was working on a report for the Daily Telegraph.

Mrs Miller agreed to repay £5,800 (although the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner had recommended £45,000, which was deemed too harsh by the Committee on Standards, composed of five Conservative MPs, four Labour and one LibDem, plus three lay members), but there is no fine, no form of censure other than a short apology in the House of Commons. Contrast that with the official attitude to “benefit cheats”: fines of £350 to £2,000 plus paying the money back, loss of benefits for up to three years, and in some cases prison. But then most “benefit cheats” can’t afford a personal solicitor, and are certainly not allocated a “special adviser” paid from public funds.

The chasm between the charmed circle and everyone else is growing so vast that notions of equity and justice are rocking on their insecure foundations.

 

[1] Pps 257-8 in the 2013 edition, published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.

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