Jean Valjean, lobbyist

Sunday National, 14th November 2021.

It was the late Christopher Hitchens who first introduced me to the concept of a “trumbrel remark.” Writing in Slate magazine in 2008, Hitchens defined it as “an unguarded comment by an uncontrollably rich person, of such crass insensitivity that it makes the workers and peasants think of lampposts and guillotines.”

He gave the example of the late Queen Mother. “Being driven in a Rolls-Royce through a stricken district of Manchester,” she was reported to have “winced at the view” and said “I see no point at all in being poor.” Now that’s what they call the common touch. Let them eat cake.

Sir Peter Bottomley – a Tory MP who sounds like a character in a Regency farce – takes the full-bottomed wig this week for his suggestion that he “didn’t know how” newbie MPs manage on £81,932 a year plus expenses, describing the life of some parliamentarians as “desperately difficult” and “really grim.” The people’s representatives, he suggested, should earn £110,000 or £115,000 a year “to get the same standard of living” as doctors, and to remove any temptation to engage in the kind of extracurricular excursions which brought Owen Paterson low.  

Quite why parliamentary work should be benchmarked in this way is never explained, just as appeals to pay politicians the same as “equivalent jobs in industry” always seem to gravitate towards the top of the pay scale elsewhere. Sparing MPs the social embarrassment of knowing they earn less than consultant gynaecologists might strike you as a thin basis for increasing their salary by 40%. The fact that enthusiastic proponents of austerity and welfare cuts are now getting the onion out for themselves is beyond laughable. It is grotesque.

I know Tories traditionally have a fairly jaundiced view of human nature – that only the smack of firm government and terror of the law can keep the criminal elements in society in line – but it is remarkable to see this dim view being rolled out unironically to defend and excuse the bad behaviour of their colleagues, presenting corrupt politicians as victims of their parsimonious parliamentary salaries. Like Jean Valjean – forced to throw himself into the pockets of lobbyists for £24,601 a year to keep bread on the table.

“I really wanted to be a decent, honourable, and law-abiding MP – but with the price of a decent claret being what it is, and the rising costs of private education – I had no option but to do a corruption to keep my family in truffles and swan. I really admire your ability to survive with just one London home. I just don’t know how you manage.” I exaggerate, but it is a sentiment which can only set those tumbrels rolling.

Drenched in self-pity, Owen Paterson left what he described as “the cruel world of politics” – as if willingness to visit savage cruelty on parts of the population isn’t intrinsic to the Conservative Party’s political project. The humiliation isn’t incidental. The humiliation is the point. These self-pitying politicians are the same bodies who regret that we don’t have prison hulks for immigrants on the Thames, think we should give chain gangs a second chance, would be open-minded about reintroducing civil imprisonment for debt. They’re the same people who gleefully dole out lectures about making-do with less, who think poverty is a lifestyle choice, who regard £20 a week on universal credit as an extravagance. And now they’re greeting for themselves? There are no words.

It is one of the most important numbers to know in politics –  and surprisingly few people actually know it. Last year, it was £25,616 in Scotland, and slightly higher – £25,708 – across the UK as a whole. Can you guess what it is yet? If you suggested “the going rate for a week in the Marbella villa Boris Johnson was holidaying in last month” – you aren’t far wrong. But for those of us unlucky enough not to have befriended and ennobled billionaires like Zac Goldsmith who are prepared to give you a free shot of their holiday homes, £25,700 is the average salary of a worker in the UK. And that, before income tax and national insurance take their share.

This figure includes full-time and part-time employees. For people working the full week, the typical annual salary is £31,461 in the UK, and slightly higher – £31,605 a year – in Scotland. This is the median figure, so it isn’t distorted by very high earners at the top and those paid a pittance at the bottom. Half of folk in society earn more than this, and half earn less. If you earn over forty grand a year, you’re already in the top 20% of earners. The overwhelming majority of people in the UK need a telescope to see salaries like £82,000 a year. 95% of us earn less.

And that’s before you factor in any extras. The £28k Douglas Ross accidentally-forgot-to-tell-Parliament-he-earned from jobs which aren’t being MP for Moray is more than the annual income of an ordinary person. The £321,835 Sajid Javid was paid for “advisory work” after he’d been shunted out of the cabinet is more than twelve times what the median worker earns. Sir Geoffrey Cox’s Caribbean fee notes are worth almost 38 times what his ordinary constituents take home. The Daily Telegraph used to pay Boris Johnson £250,000 a year for his great thoughts – a fee once described by the Prime Minister as “chickenfeed“ – is ten times typical pay.

So how can it be – when folk talk about “middle England” or even “middle Scotland” in our politics, that they never seem to be talking about the people who are actually sitting smack bang in the middle of the employment system? How come this number isn’t branded on the inside of every MP’s eyelids, at the fingertips of every politics reporter, commenting on the impact of budget decisions?

Part of the explanation is simple lack of social imagination. If you ask folk to guess what the average salary is, I find people often universalise from their own economic experiences, and sometimes refuse to believe the data. Perhaps understandably, they assume most other people are mostly like them. Poorer people are more likely underestimate their relative poverty, and the rich to underestimate just how much more they are coining in than the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens. When this is turned into a governing philosophy by a political system and news media dominated by privileged voices – well it is no surprise that an objectively laughable moan about the hardships of living with a top 5% income gets any kind of hearing.

But to be even more cynical about it, the truth is that proper, widespread public understanding of how much ordinary people actually earn just isn’t in the political interest of the Conservative Party, the Tory press, or the economic interests they advocate for and serve. If people realised middle England earned £25,000 rather than £80,000, convincing the public to support your cuts to the upper rate of income tax is guaranteed to be a far harder sell. So the inconvenient truth gets buried.

During the last UK general election, a loudmouth audience member on BBC Question Time bitterly complained than he was earning “below average” on his £80,000 a year, to ignorant applause from much of the rest of the audience. He was objecting to the Labour Party’s extremely modest proposals to tax those on the highest salaries a little more. The episode neatly captured how politically dangerous this distorted political vision can be.

Despite his objective economic advantages, this guy felt like a victim. Despite being in the top 5% of earners according to HMRC, he imagined he as earning less than every doctor and every solicitor in the country. It didn’t matter that this was hooey. Because what could be more pleasant than having the opportunity to feel hard done by, without experiencing any kind of objective hardship? What is more fun than playing the victim, while retaining all your social and economic advantages?

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