Ian Clayton column: A fairer society

Memories at Holy Trinity Church at Fingerpost in Parr of Archbishop Justin Welby pictured with his wife Caroline
Memories at Holy Trinity Church at Fingerpost in Parr of Archbishop Justin Welby pictured with his wife Caroline

My guess is that in the next couple of months we will hear politicians of all shades uttering those immortal words “building a fairer society”.

I’m never sure what that really is: it’s one of those phrases they throw out there like “hard-working families” or “we are looking at a comprehensive raft of measures” or “more money in real terms than any previous administration” or “we have achieved a great deal but there is still much to do”. What does it all mean?

I’ve been thinking about the first one of these, “building a fairer society”. Now, to me and perhaps to you, a fairer society means a more even distribution of the wealth we all help to create, but all indications show that we are building a society where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The French economist Thomas Pinkerty argues this in his best selling book Capital in the Twenty First Century. So when a politician says “we want to build a fairer society”, who is it fairer for? Do they mean that a fair society is one where nothing changes because it was fair to start with and we don’t want to be upsetting any apple carts?

I’ve just read a report by two economists, Professor Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins. These two eminent academics did a survey of 634 rare surnames in Britain to shed light on how wealth is transferred through the generations. Their research shows that if your family were wealthy 200 years ago, the chances are that your family is still wealthy today and all attempts to bring about social mobility pale in comparison to the simple passing on of wealth from one generation of a family to the next.

In other words, to those who have, more is given – or as my old mate Arnold Millard once said to me: “If you start with a shilling, you have a better chance of turning it into a pound, than you have if you start with nowt.” This also might help to explain why the same surnames constantly turn up on the registers of the top public schools and on the enrolments of the elite universities.

The professors behind the report calculate that it would take 300 years for the rich descendants of 19th century families to become average earners. So when a politician says there is still much to do, what they really mean is it’s going to take a long, long time to do it and you won’t be around – neither will your children or even your children’s children.

Where do we start, then, if we want to bring about a change now? If we are to hold the politicians to their boast of wanting to create a fairer society, what can we make them do?

Professor Clark suggests we have to do things more directly, by taxing the rich and subsidising the poor, because measures to bring about social mobility in any other way will never succeed “because families with the most money and greatest abilities will always pass these onto their children”.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently urged those with money to embrace the concept of solidarity. He said: “It is about re-imagining our economic landscape so that no one is left behind.” He told the BBC: “If you earn money in a country, the revenue service of that country needs to get a fair share of what you have earned.” He also told MPs: “Businesses need to show a spirit of generosity that recognises the needs of the vulnerable in society and goes beyond attention to the bottom line.”

In a famous interview with Woman’s Own magazine in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher said: “There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and then there are families.”

That was in a decade of greed of course, when a lot of people seemed to think making more and more money and hanging on to it was the be all and end all. I’d like to think we live in more enlightened times now and the concept of society and community spirit is ripe for a comeback.

It’s to be hoped so, otherwise those who already have plenty will continue to hoard it and pass it on to their children when they die and the rest can wait for the crumbs from the rich man’s table to trickle down.