If you talk to members of the Far left in Britain you’ll encounter all sorts of strange characters. Colourful figures who would make Jeremy Corbyn come across as a Conservative. And for some of them, you must wear a certain hat to be able to sympathise with their politics – or at least not dismiss them as totally insane.
Similar things can be said of people to the right of the political spectrum. Picture the following Scenarios
Mark is a son of a truck driver and carer, and grandson of a miner. He comes from a relatively big family of 5 children. Parents are low-skilled workers who never went to University, but are hard-working, otherwise known as ‘mortgage slaves’. Classed as poor, at least on paper, Mark managed to get into university – on a government loan/ grant, and had to work to support himself and pay his rent, even during his holidays. He came away from University with a second class degree in a social science or arts subject. Throughout his childhood, his family took holidays at home, although once they went to Spain, and at another time they went to Ireland. But they had no money for him to travel in his twenties, so after a number of stints in several part-time jobs (including pouring pints in bars), he managed to spend a few weeks in Uganda and Tanzania with a friend, travelling to ‘experience other cultures’. Mark doesn’t like posh people, and has never been to the city of Oxford. He’s had to use public hospitals all his life. Nearing 40 years, Mark still lives in a shared house, with 3 other housemates, renting a room for about £375 a month. He’s worked in a library and is now a teacher, although it took him a while to find a stable job. Mark stands to inherit very little, probably less than £10,000 from his father and mother, money which his brother (who could inhereit similar amounts) wants to use for his Mortgage. But Mark doesn’t like the idea of a mortgage, and calls it ‘being chained to a death tax for 40 odd years just to have a roof over your head in a rubbish part of town’. He would prefer living on a boat, or better – retiring to Uganda (where he thinks he can run a trendy bar serving tourists and expats). Throughout his late teens and twenties, he’s been fascinated by Marxism and Philosophy, and at some point came to the somewhat inevitable conclusion that the rich and wealthy are to blame for most global problems. So, invited by a friend, an anarchist, he’s joined other like-minded types who believe that change can only come if we break down all social hierarchies and structures, and let everyone be at the same level. Is most at ease at anti-government demonstrations.
Virginia is a daughter of a commercial farmer and a medical doctor. 3 siblings. Mother is a general practitioner and parents own acres and acres of land, and have a portfolio of real estate. Most of the land was inherited, although much of it has not been utilised for any purpose in recent years. She’s a great grand-daughter of a Marquess, niece to an heir of a billion dollar fashion empire, second cousin once removed to at least one Lord, and has a sizeable list of rich Uncles, Aunts and other relatives – most of whom are nobility and hold titles. She’s dined with members of the British Royal family and stands to inherit at least £5 million pounds from her parents, and tens of thousands of pounds from her other relatives, let alone land – lots of land. Virginia’s Parents are hard-working, but you can hardly call them self-made. They had the advantage of Aristocracy, established networks with movers and shakers of the City of London, and a plentiful supply of Capital with which to expand the family’s farms and their wealth. Both Parents went to University (father @ Cambridge, Mother @ University of St. Andrews). They’ve never had a need for a Mortgage and are classed within the richest 5% of the UK’s population. So it seemed appropriate for Virginia to be privately educated. She’s never had a part-time job, but spent her free time in University taking dancing, music and acting lessons and generally having a good time. For Virginia’s convenience, her parents bought a 3 bed house near her University, so that Virginia could live in it during the time of her studies. She studied Classics and Religion and came away with a 1st class degree. Throughout her childhood, Virginia’s family took holidays abroad, in the US, in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil and once they even took a holiday in Venezuela. She’s been to at least 40 countries, travelling with her family, cousins or on her own, often in first class or business class. Once or twice in her life, the family took their major holiday in Cornwall. She’s the embodiment of an affluent upper middle-class woman and thinks most poor people either deserve their lot, or are poor because of laziness. She’s never really got to know anyone from a disadvantaged background on a personal level. Instead she’s proud of her snobbery – calling it ‘positively bigoted’. They’ve got private health insurance, every one of their family members and anyone who uses the National Health Service only does so out of choice. Like Mark, she’s nearly 40 years old, but unlike Mark, she lives in her own house in Berkshire – worth £2million. She has a husband (a Scion of a prominent family that owns a billion pound Real Estate empire) and two adorable kids, both boys. Virginia runs her own business which employs 12 people full-time, but it goes without saying that her parents gave her over £400,000 as Capital, and plenty of help and assistance, to enable her to launch her business. Lucky for her, she’s worked hard to make it into a success. Virginia takes at least 3 long holidays a year, (skiing, in the sun, or visiting a part of the world she’s not previously seen before) on top of all the short breaks she squeezes into weekends and long weekends, and as such she relies heavily on her business’ manager – another woman who has a background that in some respects is similar to that of Mark. Virginia treats her staff well, and whenever she can, she gives money to charitable causes, especially those supported by some of her friends and family, or which are connected to someone she knows. She’s passionate about women empowerment and entrepreneurship, and sees the wealth gap as a necessary ‘motivation factor’. She wants to grow her business into a £20million plus turnover company and with her networks and hard-work, is on course to achieving such a goal within a few years. She’s never been to an anti-government demonstration.
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Mark and Virginia are not as far-fetched a character as they may seem to some. Infact they are based on real pople, obviously with some details changed, to protect their persons. And if the real Mark and Virginia saw this article, they’d recognise themselves, and they’d know I know a lot more about their lives.
There are many people who are worse-off than Mark, but equally, there are many people who are better-off than Virginia. But I don’t think inequality can be overcome without getting people from what could be described as divergent backgrounds to understand each other.
So, how do you get people from such very different backgrounds to understand each other? To really get each other? Is it fair for example to claim hard work pays when so many people are unable of overcome hardship? Is the argument for wealth redistribution really valid when there are many hard-working rich people who have worked hard to grow and maintain their wealth? Will prosperity and wealth always largely depend on who you know?
Since on a practical level the wealth of your parents (and their parents) can help, has helped, and will help make a child’s own wealth, how do you help those people whose parent’s never had any considerable amount of wealth (or were poor)? Is it really honest to say people should know their place, and be ‘content’ with what they have – when so many people inherited what they own?
I find it as equally unconvincing to demand wealth redistribution, as is to say poor people deserve to be poor. Because with wealth redistribution, where do you draw the line? Do you measure what the father had, or what the grandfather owned, or what the great grandparents owned? Where do you draw the line? What about if there are no records? Further, with poor people, there are too many different sets of circumstances that cause poverty, and to dismiss it all as down to laziness is rather shallow, and very unfair – especially to those affected by circumstances beyond their control.
But ultimately, I don’t think making one group of people angry or bitter will have the desired effect of making the world a better less unequal place. In fact there’s every reason to believe it would have the opposite effect, if not creating a leftist aristocracy ( if such a thing can be said to exist) – where those newly enriched – who it must be assumed will hold political power, become the abusers of those dispossessed.
And nobody I know would want to live in that kind of society.
That’s not to throw water on the idea of a general / common wage, it’s just I think more thought needs to go into such ‘schemes’ before they are proposed as workable.
While I would advocate an end to exploitation – of any kind, and while I know that despite claims to the contrary, it is nigh impossible for the wealthy (with all their networks and family connections) to become poor ( or to become poor to the same level as most poor people. In my view the wealthy can only become less wealthy), I also know it is hard to convince someone who has given-up on a concept such as prosperity (or ‘financial security’) to try something different in pursuit of such a concept, especially if such a person has a warped attitude towards wealth and believes the rich are the devils.
Here, a disclaimer is necessary: There are some nasty wealthy people who want to see the world burn, just as there are many poor lazy people. But generalisations (i.e. all rich people want poor people to die…or all poor people are lazy) will fail to explain why poor women in countries such as Malawi wake up early in the morning, in the cold, every day, for years and years, to make a fire to prepare food for their families. If all poor people were lazy, they wouldn’t walk miles to fetch water, or venture into the wilderness, where there are wild animals – including poisonous snakes, to collect firewood.
Anyway, without digressing too far, my point is that there has to be some sensible middle ground somewhere…where both wealthy and not-wealthy can relate. And maybe it begins with both Mark and Virginia, getting to know each other better, or getting to know more people in a much worse situation…
…or getting to know more people in a much better position??
I don’t know, I’m just thinking out aloud… unfortunately, there are no easy answers with this one.