Beware of creating ire among the plebs
In the past week there has been some 'interesting' behaviour by some of our politicians.
There was the apparent mea culpa by Nick Clegg who, it seems, is sorry for making promises that he was advised he could never realistically keep.
Whether Clegg's apology does him, or his party, any good remains to be seen but I suspect that as a consequence the next UK election campaign will be even more anodyne and lacking in commitment to anything beyond sweeping platitudes.
The behaviour of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative chief whip, who, it is stressed, allegedly swore at the police officer who made him get off his bike and use the pedestrian gate to leave Downing Street rather than being allowed to cycle through the main gate is illuminating
According to The Sun, as well as using a number of expletives (the F word!), he made it clear that the officer that he was not in the government, needed to learn his place and that he was a "pleb".
Essentially, if we believe this account, Mitchell was telling the police officer that his duty was to do what he was told and don't ask questions; exactly what was expected of plebeians in Imperial Rome.
The word plebeians, the provenance of which is from the Greek word plethos, means crowd, was used for members of the general citizenry of Rome (the masses) who did not have advisors to the king. They served the ruling class, the patricians, though they frequently had slaves of their own.
Plebians, organised themselves into what was known as a corporation which held their own assemblies, concilia plebis, and elected their own officials; tribunes and plebeian aediles.
However, the plebs were excluded and organised a campaign (the Conflict of the Orders), to gain greater recognition. As a consequence the plebeians were able to exert pressure on the state by, in effect, becoming a trade union and withdrawing their labour.
The Conflict of the Orders was resolved in 287BC by the appointment of a plebeian dictator, Quintus Hortensius, who instituted a law (Lex Hortensia) which made plebiscita, measures passed in the plebeian assembly, binding not only on plebeians but also on the rest of the community.
Plebs, in ancient Rome, therefore, had influence. However, the word 'pleb' has a negative connotation and is widely associated with English public schoolboys where in the 18th and 19th century organisation was modelled on the principles of ancient Greece and Rome.
An interesting 'footnote' is that one of this country's most infamous politicians of recent times, Enoch Powell, was a noted classical Greek scholar.
Accordingly, within the public school system a pleb was someone considered inferior because they were not a member of the landed gentry; not a proper gentleman!
So there you have it. If Mitchell did indeed call the police officer who made him get off his bike to leave Downing Street, a 'pleb' he was probably only resonating the beliefs of his cabinet colleagues who, as we know, are largely made up of Old Etonians.
No matter how much David Cameron and Boris Johnson would like to pretend that they are ordinary people we cannot forget that photo of them dressed in ridiculous garb when they were members of the Bullingdon Club.
And don't forget that George Osborne when he was at oxford was looked down upon by his contemporaries because his wealth was earned through the family wallpaper business even though he is heir to the Osborne baronetcy and decsended from the 'acsendancy', the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
Shades of the putdown that the obnoxious (but always fascinating) Alan Clark the Conservative politician and diarist made of his fellow cabinet colleague now Lord Heseltine, who made his fortune by publishing that he wasn't really one of them (the upper class), because he had to buy his own furniture!
Beyond the inevitable political brouhaha what does the row tell us beyond the obvious conclusion that anyone can have an aberration though if the majority of us did what Mitchell is alleged to have done, sworn at a police officer, we should expect to be arrested.
What is more important is to consider what the impact of current economic policy is achieving in terms of equality.
A new report, Who Gains from Growth?, carried out by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Employment Research on behalf of the Resolution Foundation - an independent think tank dedicated to improving the lives of people on low and middle incomes - shows that standards in such households will fall until 2020; even if the country's fortunes improve through steady economic growth.
What this report shows is that falling incomes among the bottom half of earners will cause the divide between the rich, whose incomes are predicted to rise, and poor will become even more pronounced.
Based on research, the report predicts that by 2020 the net income of families on low-income will fall by 15% and those on middle-income by 3%. For those who depend on benefits there is likely to be a decline of 1.7%. Given that benefits are an area of public spending that the government is trying to reduce by decreasing the welfare budget by £10billion by 2016, there is little hope of improvement.
Compare this to households in the top 50% whose income is expected to rise by 0.2% per year until 2020 (and even more for the most wealthy) and the fact that support through tax will for those on low wages will decrease, you can see that the gap between the 'haves' and have nots' will rise.
However, as Who Gains from Growth? acknowledges, these predictions are based on a fairly benign economic climate of growth in GDP of 1.5% per year between now and 2015 and 2.5% per year thereafter until 2020.
These are rates of growth in GDP that begin to look increasingly optimistic and Professor Mike Brewer, a research fellow at the IFS, makes clear his view things will get tougher for those in the bottom half of earnings by households:
"This analysis confirms the strong currents that will be pushing against income growth in the next 10 years, even once a recovery in GDP takes hold [and] Britain looks likely to see continuing polarisation in our labour market as more high-and low-paid jobs are created, skewing the distribution of income growth towards higher income households."
Interestingly, the report believes that even though many new jobs will be created by 2020, they will either by high earning professional and managerial (some 2 million) or in low wage jobs such as retail, care or leisure (some 700,000).
Jobs in the traditional middle income bracket such as in skilled administration and manufacturing are not being created.
As Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, believes:
"This is a powerful wake-up call - it gives us the most detailed account to date of the bleak outlook for living standards over the next decade if we fail to tackle some of the underlying weaknesses in our economy. It suggests that millions of families will struggle, to an extent we have not seen in other periods of growth, to progress and raise their incomes."
Who Gains from Growth? makes it clear that as well as reducing austerity as the way to solve this country's economic problems, which fall disproportionately on the poor and middle income households, the government should consider suggestions such as continuing to raise the minimum wage, encouraging more women into better paid professions and investing in training and education.
The trouble is, George Osborne is not listening; even though the cuts are resulting in more being spent than is being received through taxation. In order to achieve his target of a 4% reduction in the deficit this financial year (after five months it is up by 21%), there will have to be an acceleration in growth that would be miraculous.
A recently published report, The Blunt Axe, by Brian Reading prepared for Lombard Street Research contends that Osborne is wrong.
For those who like their history, Reading is making reference to the 'Geddes Axe' which was a programme of deep cuts proposed by the Committee on National Expenditure in the 1920s and chaired by Sir Eric Geddes.
Reading does not hold back in his criticism of Osborne's handing of the economy and cites the failure to consider the impact of spending cuts and his belief in the "rosy forecasts" very helpfully provided by the Office for Budget Responsibility OBR).
Indeed, as Reading believes, Osborne has been sloppy in his failure to identify what money is really spent on, how savings could be made without creating undue chaos and used information that is either vague or simply wrong.
For example, he has not anticipated that cuts in the public sector have caused jobs losses of 372,000 since the coalition came to power: some six times higher than the 66,000 estimate provided by the OBR.
Reading argues that this government could have avoided the savage cuts that have been imposed which will result in net spending in 2014-15 being almost 60% lower than when they came to power.
As Reading asserts, this government (not exceptionally) has been too fond of blaming others:
"The deteriorating global environment and euro-debacle undoubtedly damaged the British economy, but were foreseeable. The OBR was an accomplice, persistently awarding pass marks despite darkening skies."
Accordingly, he states, "The axe was blunt, the axeman blind."
Austerity is here to stay for the remainder of this parliament and, as Who Gains from Growth? suggests, the divisions in society will become more marked. Clearly, the 'plebs' will be worse off.
And this is why Mitchell is so worried about being seen to have used the 'P' word. To have any chance of being re-elected this government will need every vote it can get.
Being seen to be contemptuous of the hoi polloi another Greek word which comes from οἱ πολλοί and means 'the many' is not good.
The fact that this government is wedded to an economic policy that will make people even poorer is one that will be likely to cause greater tensions and, whilst I don't envisage the sort of protests seen on the continent, especially Greece, there is always a 'tipping point' that is the catalyst for social unrest.
The belief that there can be managed decline in certain parts of the country, as was suggested by some of Margaret Thatcher's minsters in the early 1980s, is plain wrong.
What people really want is a government that as well as being committed to sensibly solving this country's economic problems is equally determined to increase standards of living for all and to reducing inequality through opportunity.
Mitchell's behaviour as being seen to look down his nose at a public servant whose role is to protect him and his cabinet colleagues was not at all clever and there may come a time when the plebs really start to get angry at the way they are being made to suffer through the obsession with austerity.