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