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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage