THE GOSPEL IMPERATIVE is broken.
The pay gap between the highest and lowest paid in the UK has grown faster than in any other developed country, spiking since 2005. In 2008, average income of the top 10 per cent was twelve times that of the lowest. Their riches wax. We others are told to tighten our belts. Tax rates for the wealthiest have dropped, even as the gap between the merely rich and the utterly wealthy has grown.
We’re approaching Victorian levels of inequality, and London’s more unequal than anywhere else in the country. Here, the richest 10 per cent hold two-thirds of all the wealth, the poorest half; one-twentieth. A fifth of working residents in the London boroughs of Brent, Newham, Waltham Forest, Barking and Dagenham earn less than the living wage. Unemployment (2012) in the city is above 400,000, and rising. Almost a quarter of young Londoners are out of work. A wrenching 40 per cent of London children live in poverty.
The numbers mean death. Travel the grey Jubilee line. Eight stops, east from Westminster to Canning Town. Each stop, local life expectancy goes down a year.
From where you’ve got out, over the river you can see the dome, the blister-memento of London’s pathetic millennium.
Stagnation and money cataclysm. Boardroom pay goes up 50 percent. Still, in London, defenders of privilege aren’t quite so prone to swagger as their U.S. counterparts. Yes, magazines like Hello and Heat, programs like Made in Chelsea, celebrate conspicuous consumption by celebrities and local gilded youth. Yes, the Financial Times How To Spend It supplement, a guide to luxury and chic commodities, is enough to make a placid liberal nostalgic for the guillotine.
But the propaganda never fully took. 1998: Lord Mandelson, New Labour grandee, declares that Labour –that traditionally working-class party – is ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’ People, though, refuse to forget that the filthy riches of the filthy rich are not unrelated to the filthy poverty of others. The declaration remains infamous.
Arguments for swollen pay packets among London’s 1 per cent and their apparatchiks tend to have a semi-apologetic, semi-sulky ring: it’s necessity, the global; market, the like-it-or-not real world. Not, as might be more common on Wall Street, moral right. Ineluctibility as self-justification: its fans cite the City of London’s strength, its riches, as a reason not to target its riches, its strengths.
We slump under sado-monetarism. There are other ways. For years Alan Freeman was an economists with the Greater London Authority, working with both mayors. He leans forward in his chair, explaining what’s wrong with London’s still-massive economy, and how to fix it. ’Build two million homes . . .edufare in the place of workfare . . .invest in innovation. Quintuple government funding of R&D, extent R&D to the arts . . .put growth back and (I’s easy to show) the tax coffers will overflow.’
Statues of dragons punctuate the streets of the City, symbols of the area. Less Beasts of Revelation than priggish, arch draconine bureaucrats, more tetchy than rampant. But they guard the gold like Smaug.
In 2010, THE Labour Party was pushed out of government, and the Conservatives joined forces with the Liberal Democrats to take power. The conventional, if misleading, transatlantic analogy is that of Labour to the Democrats and the Conservatives to the Republicans. What, then, is the Liberal Democratic Party?
A mooncalf formulation. Fag-end descendent of Whigs, anti-trade union social democrats, free traders, social liberals, beachcombing disparate inspirations. The rightward lurch of the Labour Party under Blair allowed the LibDems to accrete a certain sheen. Which tarnished at astonishing rate when thy became part of the ConDem government –such a pitch-perfect portmanteau – signing up to and off on the Thatcherite agenda, privatization in the health service, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance that helped lower-income school students, undermining comprehensive education in state schools by pushing selection, the siphoning off of preferred [pupils, creating a zero-sum game among proliferating local schools, attacking any nominal agenda of universalism. Belinda Benn, educationalist, calls the model ‘rigid centralization with widespread privatization. They tore up the promise not to increase university tuition fees. That last in particular helped radicalize a wave of students whose protests in 2010 started the backlash that, with fits and starts, continues.
Today the default demeanor of the LibDem politician is chippy defensiveness, plus/minus shame. Their left wing performs its lachrymosity and discomfort, their rugged pro-marketeers – like the Deputy Prime Minister and party leader Nick Clegg- mutter about hard choices. Once a soi-disant progressive alternative, now they are Tory-enablers.
The economy toilets. Prices rise during a hecatomb of services. Libraries are closing. Social services are slashed. ‘What else’, laments the front page of the Kilburn Times, ‘is left for them to cut?’ People are fighting to stand still, whatever line of work they’re in. . .
Lionel Morrison considers the past. Few people are so well poised to parse this present, of press scandals, claim and counterclaim of racism and police misbehavior, deprivation, urban uprising. A South African radical, facing the death penalty in 1956 for his struggles against apartheid – in his house there is a photograph of him with one of his co-defendants, Nelson Mandela- Morrison got out, came to London in 1960. In 1987, he became the first Black president of the National Union of Journalists. In 2000 he was honoured by the British Government with what is, bleakly amusingly, still called an OBE, Order of the British Empire.
We sit in his home, between English oil portraits that must be two centuries old, and carvings and sculptures fro the country of his birth. Is Morrison hopeful? An Optimist?
‘I’ve been thinking about it myself,’ he says gravely, his voice still strongly accented after all these years. ‘In a sense, I’m an optimist. But it hits and completely, constantly kicks at this optimism, you understand?
The ‘it’ is everything.
“It’s like a big angry wolf having it over here. And its not prepared to move, and sometimes its legs will go, but slow.’ He mimes the animal moving, leaving a little space, a little hole, an exit. ‘And people will say “Ah, we’ve got it!” And then chop, it goes again. His hands come down, the wolf’s grasp closes.
Outside, north London gets on with its dark. There’s an apocalypse more wintery than in Jonathan Martin’s conflagration. At the end of all things, Fenris-wolf will eat the sun. Its expression will e of nothing but greed, and it will look out at nothing.
Lionel Morrison doesn’t sound despairing. But he does sound tired.
‘Every time you do something and nothing goes any further, it eats at you,’ he says. ‘It starts this bitterness.’ He says the word slowly. ‘And I think this is one of the most terrible things that can take place . . . many become hopeless . .. it just breaks them down, and they think, “no, I want nothing more to do with this.” And then you find others who think, “Well, doing this and nothing happens? Well, let us just wait for things to –for chaos, really, to take place.”’