As the Tories get into ever greater trouble over Lord Ashcroft and his Belize dollar, it seems timely to review Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s excellent book Unjust Rewards. This short, punchy polemic represents something of a rarity these days – an unashamedly progressive critique of poverty and wealth in present day Britain, and specifically the growing gap between the income of those at the top and those lower down.
Unjust Rewards is hard hitting, using real life case studies and well researched statistics. Toynbee and Walker have no doubt where to place the blame for our greedy society, personified by out of touch bankers who let the recession happen because they have no contact whatsoever with people outside their narrow social circle. It lies firmly with Margaret Thatcher.
The other eternally damaging Thatcher legacy is the idea that if you are rich enough and can therefore get away with it you don’t have to pay tax. Coupled with this is the equally, if not more damaging belief, that government is incompetent and our tax goes to waste. We who can afford it do not pay tax and we will convince everyone we possibly can that we don’t need the tax as public provision is useless. Neither a correct nor an endearing political philosophy.
By contrasting the bubbles in which both the rich and the poor live, Toynbee show just how divided Britain in the early 21st century. And as ever it’s the poor who pay.
Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. Early years intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children can have truly amazing effects, as studies about the effect of Sure Start have shown. By the time adults face difficulties such as unemployment, practical help can make an enormous difference in getting people back to work. Government, by no means the inefficient big brother the right would have us believe, can and does have positive effects.
The point of all of this is that revenues go up when people work and medical costs go down as those in work are generally healthier. Reducing the gap between rich and poor also reduces the corrosive bitterness between the haves and the have nots.
The book’s final chapter is a “manifesto” for action, including the end of “non dom” status so that everyone living in this country pays UK taxes. If the Ashcroft affair has done anything, it’s surely put this on the map. No representation without taxation perhaps.