Loaded language, school prom debt and the riches of average earnings

Peter Wilby remarks on how so much of our public discourse concerns “inappropriate language”. Plus why are parents bankrupting themselves for American-style proms?

Leaving, US-style: students in Newcastle at their end of GCSE prom, 2011. Photo: Getty
Leaving, US-style: students in Newcastle at their end of GCSE prom, 2011. Photo: Getty

On 20 May, the Guardian’s front page brought readers the latest on the “sexist” emails sent by Richard Scudamore, chief executive of football’s Premier League from his work computer . On page three, it reported a court case in which a 33-year-old man was charged with retweeting messages that threatened the MP Stella Creasy with rape. A page-four story updated us on Nigel Farage’s possibly racist comments about Romanians. Page five was dedicated to John Inverdale recalling last year’s storm over his disparaging remarks on Radio 5 Live about the looks of a female tennis player. Page seven brought news of an internal battle in the Police Federation after the Plebgate affair over what the former Tory minister Andrew Mitchell said in 2012 to police officers at the Downing Street gates. By then, we were nearly at the foreign pages, where a million Bosnians were coping with floods, Thais with martial law, and Indians with a new leader who allegedly connived in mass slaughter in 2002.

I do not wish to minimise the offence caused by Scudamore, Farage, Inverdale or, allegedly, Mitchell, still less the distress caused by the Twitter troll. Nor do I wish to single out the Guardian; other papers covered these stories, if not always quite as prominently. (I am sure the relatively modest coverage of Scudamore’s emails in the Times and Sun has nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch’s close business relationship with the Premier League.) But isn’t it striking that so much of our public discourse concerns what is described as “inappropriate” language? And I haven’t even mentioned the Guardian’s page-two story: the conviction of Abu Hamza on several charges, including “advocating” violent jihad.

Comprehensive costs

Commentators frequently note the rising cost of sending a child to a fee-charging school. We hear less of the rising costs at state schools. Comprehensives routinely organise holiday excursions to, say, Zambia, or ski slopes in America. Now schools are preparing for the annual “prom” after GCSE exams. For parents of girls in particular this involves far more than buying a ticket. Stretch limos, photographs, hair, make-up and, above all, dresses, some imported from America, can bump the cost up to nearly £1,000. True, there is no compulsion to take part but, as every parent knows, it’s not as simple as that. I wonder how many families get into debt rather than risk their children feeling left out at schools that always bang on about being “inclusive”.

No doubt Michael Gove thinks this kind of thing is admirably aspirational. But in my view state schools should not be acting as vehicles for conspicuous consumption.

Egalité, briefly

I have reached page 336 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which represents 58.2 per cent of the total distance to be travelled. One reward of such books, arduous though they are, is that you come across illuminating material that goes unmentioned in reviews. For example, the conventional view of “les événements” of 1968 – the student uprising in Paris – is that they had significant social and cultural effects but zero influence on economic injustice. Not so, according to Piketty. President de Gaulle, desperate to buy off unrest that spread to the working class, agreed an immediate 20 per cent rise in the minimum wage. It had increased only 25 per cent in the previous 18 years, but more than doubled in value over the next 15.

The result, Piketty writes, was “a very substantial compression” of inequality. So the students, who romantically saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, did the working classes some good, if only temporarily. The steady improvement in wages and the fall in inequality were smartly reversed in 1982-83 by – wouldn’t you know it? – a Socialist government.

Aspire to average

Perhaps Ed Miliband’s proposals to link the minimum wage to hourly earnings will lead to another “very substantial compression”. But it depends what he’s talking about, which isn’t clear. Most reports refer to “average earnings” and “median earnings” as though they were synonymous. They are not. An average wage is calculated by adding all wages and dividing by the number of earners, a median by listing all wage-earners by order of rank and finding the one bang in the middle, where half earn more and half less. The former can be 25 per cent higher than the latter, because it is inflated by bankers, chief executives and Daily Mail editors.

Almost certainly, Miliband intends a link with median earnings. But perhaps we pedants should shut up. The best hope of reversing the trend to more inequality may be for Labour to link the minimum wage, by stealth, to average earnings.