Sunday, 24 April 2016

Toxic title

One great advantage of a value system based on belief in God is that it provides a bedrock on which to found certainties.

It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven because that’s the way God has organised the universe. Whether you favour the notion or dislike it makes it no difference: it’s a fundamental law. Although that specific principle belongs to Christianity, it wouldn’t take long to find similar tributes to the poor in most religions.

For those of us who see little evidence around us for the proposition that the world is anything but profoundly godless, there’s nothing on which to ground such reassuring certainty. We instead are probably safer to assume that there’s nothing whatever to guarantee rights to the poor or, indeed, the less than wealthy, to enter any gateway let alone heaven’s. We can count only on what we extract by our own efforts.

Rights are won, they aren’t granted, and they certainly aren’t guaranteed.

The underlying problem is neatly encapsulated in the idea of entitlement. Rights for the poor are being rapidly eroded in the prosperous nations, as employment becomes increasingly precarious, large swaths of wage-earners are obliged to give up relatively well-paid jobs and take work at lower income, or find no work at all, while at the bottom of the pile, the unemployed or the ill enjoy diminishing support. All this is happening at a time when trade union power is at its weakest for a century or more, and that’s no coincidence: when it came to forcing rights from power, no one achieved so much as the unions.

What this means is that increasing numbers of people are discovering that what they believed was their entitlement, they had not title to at all. They had exercised rights, but those rights could only be retained by constantly defending them. Giving up the instruments to wage that defence, or indeed switching their support to those who opposed the rights in the first place, put them in jeopardy.

At the other end of the scale, there are those who know all about sustaining their entitlement. Take Mark Cutifani, for instance. He’s the Chief Executive of mining company Anglo-American. Corporations, particularly in Britain and the US, have only one overriding obligation: to deliver value to their shareholders. Employees or the community generally count for next to nothing in comparison.

So when Anglo-American lost three-quarters of its share value last year, you might think the company’s executives would take a proverbial cold shower. After all, they justify their high salaries by the responsibility they take for performance.

But that’s to leave out the notion of entitlement. Cultifani has just run into some anger from shareholders because his proposed remuneration is £3.4 million. That’s equivalent to the income of some 130 British households on median earnings.

Britain is facing the increasing deterioration of its health services, as salary levels fall becoming unattractive to new recruits. Recently, it was announced that we are heading towards a critical teacher shortage, for exactly the same reason. However, it seems we’ll never run out of candidates for the top levels of industry, where incomes remain as attractive as ever, if not more so. As Cultifani shows, there isn’t even a requirement to perform to receive that level of reward.

The beauty of such salaries is that they leave plenty of small change to invest in worthy causes. Like, for instance, buying a political party. It is people like Cultifani who fund the British Conservative party or the US Republicans (indeed, as Hillary Clinton demonstrates, a lot of Democrats too). So we get entitled people running our political establishment as well – men like David Cameron or London Mayor Boris Johnson, born with silver spoons in their mouths, educated at the most privileged institutions in the country, and then following a yellow-brick path into the top offices of state.

Obama with Cameron in London
Britain outside the UK might be at the back of queue

Johnson is perhaps the more interesting case of entitled thinking. He’s a leading voice in the movement to get Britain out of the European Union. As leading international figures, such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, speak out for the UK staying in, warning that leaving would serious disadvantage the UK specifically in its trading relationship with the US, Johnson has hit back. Apart from a racist dig at Obama for being “part-Kenyan”, he has argued – as have other anti-EU politicians – that the US and others among our major partners, would just have to come to terms with us.

You see, these are entitled individuals. They regard the nation as entitled too. The US can’t possibly deny us privileged trading status! Why, we’re Britain. We can simply demand better treatment than that. They may be in for a shock. For which we’d all pay the price.

What about the rest of us?

What’s happening to the health service and education should be an object lesson. We have no entitlement to them. Or to proper policing, a fair justice system, decent transport or any of the other things that we think we can count on for a reasonable life. If we leave it to the entitled, concerned only with their entitlement, we shall lose all those rights, as we are losing them now. 

We have no title to any of these things. Only hard-won rights. They need protecting – from the entitled.

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