Tuesday 19 October 2010

The untouchables and the rest of us

This month Germany finally paid the last instalment of its bill for starting the First World War.

The whole concept of war guilt and reparations acquired rather a bad name after the German spiral into hyperinflation in the 1920s, sparking the rise of Hitler and all that subsequent unpleasantness. In the circumstances, it seems surprising that the debt was never cancelled.

Germany now resembles an elderly couple who have finally paid off their mortgage. Perchance they threw a modest celebration, in which beer and sausages were involved.

We in the UK will surely be entitled a cracking party come 2015, if George Osborne meets his target of eliminating our budget deficit within five years. At least tomorrow we will finally know what fate actually has in store, after the months of departmental leaks, counter-leaks, rumours and speculation.

All of which kept reminding me of one deeply satisfying pre-budget broadcast in the 1970s, when Robin Day asked former Tory Chancellor Reginald Maudling what he expected to be in that afternoon’s package and Reggie slurred, “What I think, Robin, is that in an hour we will all know.”

But what if young Gideon, sorry George, has been studying the German example? So far he has given a reasonably determined kicking to natural supporters of his own party (the middling better off to be hit by withdrawal of their child benefit and curtailment of pension tax relief) and of the Liberal Democrats (naive students who will now be clobbered with much higher tuition fees for their non-education in the likes of public relations with dance).

Might this be the week to slap a large reparations bill on those who actually got us into our present mess? Namely anyone who was daft enough to vote Labour in the three elections from 1997, despite the incontrovertible evidence of history that this was bound to end, sooner or later, in an almighty financial mess.

Perhaps a special levy could be imposed on Labour Party, Fabian Society and trade union members, owners of whippets or pigeons, patrons of kebab shops, purchasers of red-top tabloid newspapers and possessors of tattoos. Of course, some people would be hit several times over, but then they got to vote more than once for Ed Miliband, too, so it’s just swings and roundabouts, isn’t it? And a valuable reminder, if one were needed, that life just isn’t fair.

Then what of the other geniuses to whose star Labour hitched their own to create the present exquisite horlicks? I refer to the bankers whose lottery-sized bonuses continue to be paid in the midst of our present chaos, and who cannot be upset lest – heaven forfend – they remove their world class paper-shuffling skills from the City of London and huff off to make their unearned squillions elsewhere.

Returning to Britain, presumably, only for brief shooting, stalking and fishing holidays, to occupy the £2,012 best seats at the London Olympics, take in a spot of opera at Glyndebourne and publish reports on how the UK could be run more efficiently.

And what would be so wrong with that? Some of my best friends are investment bankers, but I could live without them if they were forced to choose between their country and their cash. Though I could also do nicely without the scarcely credible irony of asking a billionaire whose own wealth is carefully sheltered in Monaco to tell us where we have been going wrong.

Of course, it will never happen. We can be sure that the bankers will somehow find themselves on the right side of that ring fence supposedly surrounding international development and the NHS. Because just about everywhere now there seem to be two main classes of people: the untouchable super-rich and the rest of us. And nothing short of another Stalin, Hitler or Mao looks likely to change that.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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