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In need of pity?

13 February 2015


IT IS the stuff that nightmares are made of. You are at your college reunion, and come across an old chum who consistently did worse than you in exams. But now the blighter is earning ten times your salary. And for what? For pushing money from one investment fund to another; while you earn your crust saving lives, saving souls, or saving children from ignorance.

These were the nightmares, perhaps, of the Radio 4 listeners who heard a trilogy of programmes last week discussing the decline of the middle classes and the increase in wealth inequality.

It is rare that one is asked to feel sorry for GPs. But, in Clinging On: The decline of the middle classes (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), our heartstrings were plucked not only by GPs, but also by bankers (clerks, that is), academics, architects, and even lawyers. No longer can such people expect to afford housing in the places they would like to be, or afford the school fees - in short, all that they expected, from their own upbringing, to deliver to their own families. It is now priced out of reach by the new class of global super-rich.

David Boyle's documentary focused in particular on education. So expensive are the top schools nowadays that the Tatler has been publishing lists of the top state schools, recognising that many of its hoped-for readership cannot shell out £30,000 a year.

If you were really desperate, the documentary implied, you could always move up north, where private schools are suffering from a dearth of Russian and Asian plutocrats, and where one venerable institution, Liverpool College, has recently become a state academy.

It will not end well, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicts. There is nothing more dangerous than middle-class dissatisfaction: it is the stuff of which revolutions are born.

There was more than a hint of fervour in the voices of panellists on The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), as they debated whether inherited wealth is immoral. Canon Giles Fraser, in particular, has got much more shouty, perhaps as a counterweight to the show's current pantomime villain, Melanie Phillips.

The trouble The Moral Maze often gets into is that much of the polemical energy goes into consideration whether the issue under discussion is, in fact, a moral issue at all; and, on this occasion, only the philosopher Anthony O'Hear offered anything like a contribution to this, by claiming that equality itself could not be assumed to be a moral good. Controversial; but a good starting-point. Sadly, the opportunity was lost amid the traditional brawl.

Robert Peston's contribution to this de facto "Inequality Season" on Radio 4 was the one with the most stats. In The Price of Inequality (Tuesday), we heard of tiny percentages of populations' holding vast percentages of wealth; top executives being paid salaries hugely disproportionate to those of the rest of the workforce; and - the greatest sin of all, so far as the impoverished professional middle class is concerned - the general meanness and lack of culture and communal values that these people display. Give it to us, is the message. We know how to spend money in a civilised manner.

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