Land of opportunity: the developed world has allowed the poor to get poorer while the super-rich flourish
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Capitalism was supposed to signal the end of poverty. What went wrong?

David Aaronovitch reviews new books about wealth and inequality by Linda Tirado, John Kampfner and Danny Dorling. 

Hand to Mouth: the Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World 
Linda Tirado
Virago, 224pp, £14.99

The Rich – from Slaves to Super-Yachts: a 2,000-Year History 
John Kampfner
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25

Inequality and the 1% 
Danny Dorling
Verso, 192pp, £12.99 

During the long boom of the 1990s and 2000s, it became possible to imagine that nearly everyone who wanted to could do well out of capitalism. The rich would be rich – a few, alas, would be richer almost than we could imagine – but the poor could be (and should be) educated, doctored and employed out of poverty. There was much to do, true, but much had been done; the “system”, if such a name could be given to the historical agglomeration of habits and institutions that governs our economic lives, seemed to work. And that was why virtually everyone, from the cool Icelanders to the red Chinese, subscribed to it.

Some readers will be shaking their heads, proclaiming their opposition to capitalism or to “neoliberalism”. Perhaps they went on a march in the City against globalisation or attended one of the late Tony Benn’s twinkly, twilit evenings of socialism. But it would have taken an unusual inner certainty – a faith, almost – to have believed that this great, growing cornucopia of riches, from iPods to EasyJet, would be brought to a halt.

In this country, the near collapse of Northern Rock in the autumn of 2007 marked the end of the era of confidence. For the first time in years, the comfortable and the doing-OKs began to look at the world with something of the same continuing anxiety that had been limited to the poor. Indeed, they began to feel poor themselves. Yet they weren’t poor and they haven’t become poor. That much should be obvious to anyone reading Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth. Albeit a book by an American (and therefore set in a society that believes anyone can make it if they try hard enough – and its corollary that if you didn’t make it, you didn’t try hard enough), it is nevertheless a book about everywhere in the developed world, too.

The name Tirado is almost an aptronym, because the book doesn’t ever let up its tone of exhausted complaint and makes no attempt to charm its readers. This artlessness may be why Tirado’s original post on the Gawker website in the autumn of 2013 went “viral” in the first place. It was an answer to the complaint that the poor tended to be poor because of the choices they made – because they smoked, took drugs, had children they couldn’t afford and otherwise connived at their own poverty. This is something that Americans say and believe but that British people tend only to believe.

Her post was entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts”. Within a year, it brought Tirado a book deal and a precarious celebrity. It also brought her plenty of criticism from people who seemed – through attacking her credibility (she comes from a middle-class family) – almost desperate to deny the truth that she was describing.

It is easy to see why. Tirado depicts a life in which hard work – very hard work – often gets you nowhere because you aren’t paid enough to save for the day when you have no work, or fall ill, or the car breaks down. A life in which the smallest budgeting decision makes the difference between buying insurance or having enough to eat. In other words, a world in which the “long term” cannot afford to exist.

This is the world of people who flip burgers by day and wait tables by night, not to get through college but for life. For ever. And, as Tirado makes mercilessly clear, these tend to be the same jobs where we (and therefore the employer) expect a smile from the counter staff, a have-a-nice-day delivered convincingly by someone who has been on his or her feet for six hours – and our orders got right or else we’ll be cross.

The book is not enjoyable, it is not witty and its anger and sense of hopelessness make it hard to like the author. But Tirado doesn’t want you to like her, or even feel sorry for her. More of her book says “F*** you” to the reader than “Help me”. Nor is she particularly interested in her own demons, whose shadows the readers must discern for themselves. Far from everything that happens to Tirado is a necessary consequence of her poverty and you can’t help wondering how a different person would have managed the same problems.

Yet this, exactly, is her strength. She strips away our capacity to avoid the truth, to be sidetracked. Tirado tells us what we all secretly know every time we catch a glimpse of the night cleaner in the early-morning office finishing up and then heading off to a second job, or to take the kids to school, or to college. It’s a harder life than ours.

That Tirado should have been lionised probably says a good thing about us, because generally, I imagine, it is easier to sell books about the lives of the spectacularly wealthy than those about the quotidian existence of the poor. The first category is, after all, about infinite possibility (or as infinite as a human being can manage) – not, like the second, which is about severe limitation. In that sense, it is about fantasy being realised, which is why Mills & Boon heroes are rarely car-wash operatives.

I have to say that, for myself, this lack of limitation makes the super-rich boringly unreal. The furniture and frocks and motor cars in Downton Abbey very quickly become a substitute for plot or insight into character. The man or woman becomes a mannequin, over which are draped distracting furs and jewellery.

John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, must have encountered this precise problem when writing his new book, The Rich. The riches are interesting but the people may not be. He compounds this problem for himself by looking at the lives only of the male creators of fabulous wealth, when he could have made more drama by examining the biographies of the wives, mothers, aunts and daughters of the super-rich.

Despite this self-imposed limitation, Kampfner’s book is a fascinating series of well-observed vignettes, beginning with Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Caesar, and ending up with more generic chapters on the sheikhs, geeks, oligarchs and bankers of our own times. There are some surprises here (I had never heard of Alain le Roux, the Breton who came over with William the Conqueror and took over much of England) and reminders of some of the ever-thusnesses of human history.

We talk easily of how huge wealth must be accompanied by equally huge power. Kampfner’s book reminds us that this is often not the way it feels to the super-rich. Paradoxically the scale of their riches makes them feel unsafe. Rather than thinking themselves invulnerable from state action because they can control politicians with their money, they more often worry about what could go wrong. This is well illustrated by Kampfner in the case of the new Chinese billionaires, who are only too anxious to render under to the communist Caesars that which is the Caesars’.

What they are worried about is envy. I don’t mean by this that all opposition to their excessive wealth is irrational but that – especially in times such as these – what they have and what they are can seem to be almost psychically unbearable.

The political use of that envy is the purpose of Danny Dorling’s chart-littered polemic on the “1 per cent”. Everything that is wrong with our society, Dorling argues, is the fault of the top 1 per cent of earners taking a bigger and bigger share of our wealth. Tackle them, he writes, and you hardly need to do anything else – or, as he puts it, “Simply concentrating on the share taken by the 1 per cent is enough. It may even be one of the best measures of inequality to consider in terms of how simple a target it may be for effective social policy.”

There are three flaws in Dorling’s hurriedly written book (he had another published in February). The first is that the 1 per cent doesn’t really exist, which is why again and again in the book he seems to use the term “super-rich” about people who earn above £150,000 per year. The consequence is that he attributes characteristics of behaviour, psychology and action to a group, most of whose putative members don’t share those characteristics.

The second problem is that he becomes absurdly determinist. It should be obvious to anyone but the most sequestered that Sir David Attenborough is against what he sees as overpopulation not because (as Dorling strongly implies) he is one of the anti-poor 1 per cent but because he is a lifelong and over-passionate naturalist.

The third problem is more serious. Dorling wants to form a coalition against the super-rich that he knows (and argues) is more likely to be led successfully by the well-heeled middle classes than by the downtrodden – by the other Dorlings than by the Tirados. The poor may wave a pike or knit in the shadow of the guillotine but the committee of public safety will be made up of doctors and deputy head teachers.

There is, it seems to me, a more likely consequence – which is that the relatively well-off (certainly those whom Tirado and her cleaner and fast-food comrades would consider well-off, which is almost everyone reading this article) will absorb this argument and say, “Tax them, not me.” Any substantial change in the condition of the poor in any developed nation will only happen with the agreement and the contribution of the middle classes. They will have to agree to pay, one way or another. Theirs is another book altogether. 

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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