Why Cameron was right to condemn Jimmy Carr

Hypocritical and politically inept? Perhaps, but Cameron was right to take a stand.

"I wonder if whoever advised Cameron to comment on Jimmy Carr has realised what they’ve done yet?" tweeted Marina Hyde this morning and most commentators seem to be in agreement that the Prime Minister has been foolish to make a moral pronouncement about a comedian's tax affairs. It’s certainly a licence for journalists to rake over Tory donors' tax returns.

But doesn’t the argument about whether or not he’s been politically inept or hypocritical, mask another uncomfortable truth: that he could be right. I understand the argument that it’s wrong for a politician to condemn someone who hasn’t broken the law – but I’m not sure I agree with it. We expect our politicians to make moral judgements, we call them out on it all the time, over issues like health, education, welfare and military intervention. It seems a nonsense to say that when someone has acted legally but in a way that makes them feel morally uncomfortable, our leaders should keep schtum.

Cameron had three options: say what he did; say the opposite ("perfectly legal, done nothing wrong") – imagine how that would have played - or played the Ed Miliband "but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality" card. Good luck with that one at the next PMQs, Ed, because that’s not what you’ve said in the past. Here’s a cracking quote from a Miliband speech last year.

The bankers who took millions while destroying people's savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the people who hacked phones at the expense of victims: greedy, selfish and immoral.

Miliband was right then, just as Cameron was right yesterday.

Of course, hypocrisy litters the story left, right and centre. Various newspaper groups writing about this story employ ways and means to bring down their own tax burden. And there is an issue about where you draw the moral line. Plenty of folk avoid tax everyday, without a moment’s guilt. Pension contributions, ISAs, duty free shopping. Nothing wrong with any of them. But anyone using them is utilising a tax avoidance scheme – does that remove their right to express an opinion about the moral rectitude of rather more complicated and creative pieces of accounting? I don’t think so.

Cameron will undoubtedly live to regret his words about Carr – the newspapers will make sure of that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he was wrong to say it. Does it?

David Cameron said Jimmy Carr was "morally wrong" to avoid tax. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser