We are re-living a traditional Victorian Christmas – of excess for the few and struggle for the many

The rich are getting richer to an extent that is breaking our society – and our economy – apart.

When it comes to Christmas, we British are gonna party like it’s 1899; watch the TV over the next week and you will see countless images of an idealised Victorian Christmas, probably including families gathering round a tree and urchins gazing through the frosted window of a toyshop.

Unfortunately, this Christmas will be more authentically Victorian than we’d like, not just because Bob Cratchit’s great-great-great grandson is once again struggling to buy festive poultry, but also because while most of us are getting poorer, the great-great-great grandsons of the top-hatted gentry are getting richer to an extent that is breaking our society – and our economy – apart.

Some of the signs of poverty are well-known: the low-paid parents forced to resort to food banks and the huge growth of the payday loan industry – a modern-day equivalent of the pawnbrokers (although the latter have doubled their numbers in the last four years, too). This poverty is not just about low incomes; it is also about income insecurity. Victorian stevedores each day hoped they would get lucky and be assigned work, whereas today growing numbers of workers wait to see how many – if any – hours of work their employer will give them.

Like the Victorian poor, Britons on low and middle incomes are often treated as a different caste of people to those which in the nineteenth century were called the "upper ten thousand" and are now the "super rich" 0.1%. The practice of sacrificing workers’ need for reliable incomes to the desire of employers to have flexibility is spreading - through zero-hours contracts and false self-employment – up the income scale. This is reflected in how our incomes are described: too often, the business pages of refer to the pay of the 0.1% as "reward" (they are valuable creatures to be nurtured and thanked) whereas the rest of us are "labour costs".

At the other end of the scale, the rich are getting richer. The UK’s 1,000 wealthiest people last year got richer by £35bn: they now have assets, on average, of £450m each. London now boasts the world’s most expensive home, and we are seeing the return of the butler. The share of national income that the top 1% get fell throughout most of the 20th century, but is again heading towards Victorian levels.

And this new gentry are not, for the most part, talented hard-working who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. As in the Victorian era, the rich are the privileged offspring of privileged parents. The UK has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. A child whose parents send them to private school is 11 times more likely to go on to run a major company than his state-school equivalent, and 30 times more likely to become a high-court judge.

At the end of the 19th century, the consequences of inequality for the country became clear: one in three recruits for the Boer war were rejected on medical grounds. We are again constructing a Victorian folly:  the UK is suffering from unusually high levels of mental and physical health problems for a developed country, problems which are associated with inequality, and which have detrimental effects on our economy as they impact on our productivity. In addition, inequality harms the economy by leaving the majority with little to spend and giving a minority lots of spare cash to spend on property speculation and other schemes which drive up costs for the rest of us.

The Victorian era saw a tiny plutocracy grab a huge share of the wealth of the country (and, for good measure, numerous other countries) but they left us a weakened nation that was heading for a sharp decline. Let's make our national new year’s resolution to stop making the same mistake.

Duncan Exley is director of the Equality Trust

Foodbank volunteers sort through some of the food donated by people to the Rochdale Foodbank. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue