(Swans - April 19, 2010) After paying at a car park the other day I pointed out to a woman who had just done the same, that although this charge had just gone up by what seemed a paltry amount, it was in fact an extortionate increase of 66%. In passing let me say I believe that one reason why so many exorbitant price hikes do not get challenged is because most people don't work out the percentage increases. Regrettably, for some of them it is not just apathy, but because they lack the ability to do the simplest of such calculations, in their heads anyway. That may not be surprising when, for instance, the minister for school standards famously declared in a BBC interview, that 8 times 7 was 54. But to return to that inflated parking charge, the person I spoke to responded with one word, "Outrageous!". I thought so also, and outrage is what we should feel about so many things today far more important than parking fees.
Even while there is still a furore over the grossly inflated expenses that too many of our MPs have been claiming, a new scandal surfaced with the broadcasting of a Channel 4 TV programme, only weeks before our general election. A part of an investigative series, "Dispatches," this one has already been called "Lobbygate." A number of politicians, including former ministers, were secretly filmed while being interviewed for employment by a "US public affairs company," which in fact was a fake. The greed showed by these people and their smugness when boasting how they could manipulate or circumvent what are supposed to be democratic processes, was nauseating. The politician who grabbed most headlines over this was Stephen Byers, former transport secretary and a staunch ally of Tony Blair, boasting on the programme that he still sees the ex-prime minister regularly. The media loved Byers for giving them the best quote from the programme when he told the supposed lobbying firm that he was rather like a cab for hire. For that service, however, the firm would have to pay him £3,000 to £5,000 ($4,500 - $7,500) a day. All of the politicians shown on the programme expected payment in that range. A few viewers who actually defended these practices remarked that this level of remuneration was reasonable for such knowledgeable and influential people. Well, I suppose these figures are chickenfeed compared to the millions of dollars washing about in the American lobbying system, not least relating to health insurance, but my thought was that very large numbers of British people have to work, and I mean work, not just talking slyly to the right people as these politicians evidently planned to do, for a couple of months for that sort of money.
Byers in fact is probably no longer influential, as he was pushed aside even by his buddy Blair because of his gaffes. He happened to be that inept minister for school standards referred to above, although he was still promoted later to two other ministerial posts. He was heavily criticised for his part in the collapse of the MG Rover Group and later for rushing to put the privatised railway infrastructure, Railtrack, into administration. He earned another black mark when he refused to fire his political adviser, who had circulated an e-mail suggesting that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 made it a good day for the UK government to publish any news it would sooner bury. However, he remained an MP and in the expenses scandal he was reported to have claimed more than £125,000 ($187,000) in second-home allowances for a London apartment owned by his partner and where he lives rent-free.
Byers is almost beneath contempt, but two of the other New Labour politicians exposed in the programme, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, would be better choices to face public humiliation if we still had something similar to the stocks as punishment.
Hoon arouses my special ire because he lives, or used to live, in the part of Derbyshire where I was brought up and he gives the area a bad name. As "defence" secretary in the time leading up to the invasion of Iraq, he lied with the best of them to get the public to support it. He should have been put on trial as a war criminal. Instead, we saw him in the programme confiding that on a recent (no doubt "official," all expenses paid) trip to Washington, some of his time was spent on what he called "Hoon work" -- he actually sniggered when he said that and stressed that he was hoping to turn his contacts into "something that frankly makes money," following his retirement at the general election.
The equally odious George Robertson preceded Hoon at "Defence," and his lies and warmongering were rewarded with appointment as secretary general of NATO and a peerage. Certainly we should not be surprised if any of the greedy politicians in the "Dispatches" programme turn up in the Lords. The only Tory on the programme (more by luck than judgment or higher principles it turned out), Sir John Butterfill, smirked as he said that he confidently expected a seat in the Lords and of course that would be another way in which he could benefit the lobbying firm.
In any event, each of the ex-ministers can expect a nice "goodbye" (resettlement grant) of something like £65,000 ($98,000) when they leave the House of Commons, as well as pensions that most working people can only dream about. Veteran MP Dennis Skinner, one of the more trustworthy "Old" Labour politicians, who used regularly to needle P.M. Thatcher and her Tory cohorts (but who seems to have been much quieter while his own party under Blair and Brown have enthusiastically embraced Thatcherism and neoliberalism), urged New Labour now to make an election pledge that all MPs should have one job only, serving their constituents. Many of us have little confidence in the pledges of any of the main parties, but at least Dennis Skinner, I am sure, was not simulating his outrage at Byers et al., as others were. It is almost beyond belief that Peter Mandelson could be solemnly quoted as saying it was "very sad and rather grubby." Grubby! -- this from the man who as a reward for being one of the main architects of the dishonourable and reactionary "New" version of the Labour Party was twice reappointed by Blair after unavoidable sackings because of shady deals and who now "graces" our House of Lords. You really could not make this up.
During the exchanges in the Commons over "Lobbygate," Dennis Skinner remarked concerning MPs' salaries, "No-one starves on £60,000 a year, so let's get on with it!". I think that comment is worth displaying above the Speaker's rostrum in the House.
Patricia Hewitt, the third ex-minister on the Lobbygate programme, has been a bête noire of mine for years, because of her Big Business connections (she was a former research director of Arthur Andersen Consulting, an offshoot of the notorious Arthur Andersen auditing firm) and the malignant role she has played in the privatisation of our National Health service, a service which millions of us hold in the highest regard. It needs to be defended tooth and nail against the machinations of people like Hewitt, who was health secretary under Blair. The way she and others undermined this public service has been well documented, particularly by Allyson Pollock. (1) I will single out just one of her reports for special mention, (2) in which she demolished the Treasury's claims that the private sector in the guise of Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a Tory idea put into practice by New Labour, was more cost efficient than using the public sector for providing health services, including building new hospitals. The "evidence" used to support this claim was so meagre, selective, and generally dubious that it would make any self-respecting statistician blush. Yet huge amounts of taxpayers' money was and is involved. Another author, a doctor, put it bluntly:
The increasing scale of PFI, and the financial burden it was generating, meant that by 2006 it was perceived to be increasingly responsible for the size of the NHS debt, together with related bed closures and service cutbacks. (3)
Debt crops up again -- inescapable under capitalism -- and it has got much worse since 2006, but none of this bothered Hewitt or any of the other political leaders and PFI and the related Public-Private Partnerships are still fleecing us. No one who knows anything would expect any of the main parties, whoever wins the election or even if there is a hung parliament, to reverse this process.
As always the mass media has supported, or at least not opposed, this privatisation of our most treasured national service. I well remember a TV programme about the NHS in which Allyson Pollock, this well informed and eloquent university professor and public health doctor, was given little time to speak compared to government spokesmen. However, many of the NHS staff saw through Patricia Hewitt. She was booed off the stage at an annual congress of nurses. But I don't think there is any doubt that in spite of exposure on the "Dispatches" programme and the fact that her party has been forced to suspend her along with the other two ex-ministers, she will be able to take advantage of the revolving door between government posts and Big Business." (See note #3) and (4)
The people exposed in "Lobbygate" are of course minnows compared to Tony Blair, who has made at least £20 million ($30m) since leaving Downing Street in June 2007 and it has recently come to light that he waged a two-year battle to keep secret a lucrative deal with a multinational oil giant that has extensive interests in Iraq. (5) That has been called "revolving door politics at its worst" and will make many people (I hope) wonder whether Blair is using his role as the West's Middle East envoy for personal gain. Never mind; Blair is no doubt basking in all the praise some of the mass media hirelings have given him for his religious conversion and for setting up his Faith campaign, or whatever it is called. Frankly I can't be bothered to check on its name, because it is clearly another egregious example of the hypocrisy that Blair and other war criminals, judging by the Nuremberg criteria alone, consistently display.
To make just one more comparison, Blair's loot, which includes ridiculous fees for his lectures -- yes, people actually pay to hear him talk! -- pales when we look at Bart Becht's pay packet at Reckitt Benckiser. (6) So shocking, said one journalist, it may be necessary to lie down and take a couple of that company's best-selling painkillers. Ninety million pounds ($135m) for one man, in one year. And yet this man had the impudence to say that it wasn't a one-man show. His pay packet suggests it is. The company has done very well, no doubt about that, even though Becht has been reported as saying that it sells "very stupid products."
Becht's rake-off works out at more than a quarter of a million pounds ($370,000) every day! I think it should be thought of like this -- many British people of those lucky enough still to have a job would need to work for ten years to earn that. If that isn't outrageous I don't know what is, but it gets worse. During those ten years (the next two parliaments if they last full term), those workers will almost certainly be faced with hefty tax rises and cuts in public services of perhaps 25% (7) to try to reduce the huge debts which have arisen from the greed of the financial elites, including Becht and other "captains of industry" as well as the banksters.
Roy Eidelson has made a plea for a shared moral outrage against the obscene inequalities of today's world. (8) I don't think he used the word capitalism, but I am glad to say that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the founders of The Equality Trust, which Eidelson refers to, do not shirk using the word in their recent book. (9) It is a book that demonstrates unequivocally how almost everything unpleasant, from low life expectancy to mental illness, from violence to illiteracy, is worsened by inequality. Eidelson's main point, I think, is that outrage over inequality can unite the victims of discrimination with those who find discrimination morally repugnant, even though they themselves have not experienced it. I hope so. Certainly I think that outrage in this context is a much healthier emotion than resentment, which can be linked to envy (and how the right loves to sneer at the left as simply being envious!).
The obstacles to reaching a shared moral outrage are severe, as Eidelson discusses. As far as Britain is concerned I am sorry to say I am not hopeful. One depressing instance might explain why. When Gordon Brown announced the date of the general election, his opening remark was that the Queen had been kind enough to dissolve parliament. The fact that he could say that -- probably had to say that -- in 2010, without fear of ridicule, suggests he is addressing an electorate with a forelock mentality, not an outraged populace.
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About the Author
Charles Pearson worked as a research biochemist in British Universities and then in Canada at the University of Alberta. He retired early and settled with his wife in a small village near Cambridge, England. He writes short stories, mostly humorous, which have been published in small press magazines. Pearson is passionately interested in politics, but as a socialist he feels disenfranchised in the UK. He might just vote for the Greens, assuming no socialist candidate in diehard conservative Cambridgeshire.
2. Allyson Pollock, David Price, and Stewart Player, The Private Finance Initiative: A Policy Built on Sand. The report was reviewed by Amanda Root in Radical Statistics, Issue 90, 2005, www.radstats.org.uk (last visited April 4, 2010). (back)
4. David Craig and Richard Brooks, Plundering the Public Sector: How New Labour Are Letting Consultants Run Off with £70 Billion of Our Money, Constable, 2006. (The Consultants referred to are not the highly qualified medical specialists we sometimes call by that name, but management consultants and specialists in the bottom line. Parasites I call them.) (back)