I’m sure I’m not alone in being irritated by Polly Toynbee. It’s not her intent I have trouble with – her tireless fight for a fair, just and equal world is to be celebrated. My gripe comes from her moderation. Whenever one reads her articles, there is a sense that she is hoping for a slightly more benevolent government, who will realise the sins of the past and kick the minimum wage up to £6. I agree that governments can help to alleviate the problems of the world, but they cannot be the ultimate solution, for reasons that will make up another blog post I’m sure. This is all really just a drawn out introduction to me recommending her article in Monday’s Guardian, which is really a condensed version of her new book, Unjust Rewards. The book and article see Toynbee interviewing Lawyers, Bankers and other such parasites, to examine their opinion on society, taxes, and the poor. The results appear to go beyond what were already pretty low expectations:
How much, we asked our group, would it take to put someone in the top 10% of earners? They put the figure at £162,000. In fact, in 2007 it was around £39,825, the point at which the top tax band began. Our group found it hard to believe that nine-tenths of the UK’s 32m taxpayers earned less than that. As for the poverty threshold, our lawyers and bankers fixed it at £22,000. But that sum was just under median earnings, which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay
One banker, bearing a distinct resemblance to Mr Scrooge, said: “People don’t starve in this country – it’s OK. Compared with other countries, here you don’t go hungry because you can just go and get money for free.” Some thought benefits already too high. One banker said he thought a family of four receives “say, £3,000 a month in their hands, and they’re somewhere miles up north. They’re not going to earn that sort of money, so where’s the incentive for them to go out to work?” In fact, a family of four would in 2008 receive a net total of £1,328 a month.
Whatever, the poor didn’t deserve it. Masters of the universe our groups might be, but their outlook was pure Daily Mail: “Single people . . . get pregnant and get a flat and more money. You just see everybody pushing prams, then they’ll get more income and a little flat that they can stay in for life.” There was much talk of the perverse incentives for single parenthood, with one banker complaining that the 18-year-old mother on benefits “doesn’t get that much less money than another 18-year-old working in a shop”. It didn’t seem to occur to this speaker that the shop worker’s pay might also be too low. They were contemptuous of anything that gave extra money directly to poorer people: “This thing of giving pregnant women £200 for dietary supplements. Like, as if they’ll really spend it on fruit.” Most were adamant, along with this banker: “We don’t think just chucking money at the welfare state is the answer.”
I’d like to think this Victorian and ignorant attitude was merely a statistical anomaly, a sampling accident which meant that Polly had accidentally ended up interviewing Patrick Bateman. However after three years at Warwick the views expressed sound only too familiar. As with Hard Times, it looks like Toynbee has again done us a favour in exposing in detail a murky and despicable aspect of modern British society.