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The next Labour leader should remember the ‘politics of envy’ never work

17 May 2015

7:33 PM

17 May 2015

7:33 PM

Andy Burnham may be the trade unions’ favourite candidate for Labour leader but he is already distancing himself from some of Ed Miliband’s worst populist nonsense. This is what he said in today’s Observer: ‘We have got to get away from things that look like symbolism. I am going to put the mansion tax in that category. I am not saying it was necessarily completely the wrong thing to do, but in its name I think it spoke to something that the public don’t particularly like, which is the politics of envy.’

In a 1911 article entitled An Unenvious People, The Spectator paid tribute to the nature of Englishmen.

The festivities of the Coronation would have set an edge upon envy in England if anything could. It was a time when two persons were ” beheld in glory” and exalted above all others; when, below those two persons, the whole ennobled class enjoyed the privilege of being present in Westminster Abbey to the exclusion of countless persons who could probably be proved to possess more merit; and when rich people generally illustrated in their own persons how money means comfort and poverty discomfort. Yet the impression every observer must have received from the Coronation week was one of prevalent good will and good humour.

We English people may be dull, unsympathetic, arrogant, and the rest of it, but among ourselves we have the virtue of not wasting our time and our nerves on social envy. Probably in this respect we are unique among European peoples…One cannot point to a single political cause which has prospered when the appeal has been that of a demagogue to class hatred. The Englishman wants justice, but he does not think of injustice as being maliciously forced on him by a higher class which is working thereby for its own advantage. A sensitive Englishman might indeed waste much embarrassment in the presence of persons poorer than himself through the consciousness of being better dressed and more comfortable than they. To private envy Englishmen are no doubt as inclined as all other human beings… but envy does not exist in England as the normal feeling of one class towards another.

But by 1957, Charles Curran worried that the politics of envy had become the best way to win over the electorate.

Mass opinion in this country has undergone a profound change that has taken it outside the area of economic arguments. The industrial worker now… believes that it is basically unjust to impose restraints on one group unless at the same time parallel restraints are imposed on other groups as well. This is a matter not at all of statistics, but of feelings so deep that they form a settled conviction. To tell him, for instance, that dividends are a drop in the ocean of purchasing power by contrast with wages may be true; but in face of this conviction it is irrelevant. Even though the control of dividends, capital gains, expense accounts and other forms of minority expenditure would make no difference at all, in real terms, to inflation, he feels that they should be controlled all the same. He wants fiscal human sacrifices to be performed before his eyes in the name not of economics but of Fair Shares.


Anyone attempting to gain a competitive advantage, he said, was now viewed with suspicion, and Socialists were doing their best to exploit it.

Each of the new Socialist policy documents produced since 1955 seeks, with greater or less skill, to probe and exploit this mass hostility to differentiation. To measure any of these documents by economic criteria is as irrelevant as to examine the inflation controversy in that way. They are not economic proposals so much as essays in morbid psychology. It is the politics of envy, for example, that clearly dictate the Socialist plan to municipalise all rented houses—and thus turn the majority of British families into council tenants. For this would replace differentiation by standardisation in patterns of living…If the politics of envy triumph at the next election, they will pretty certainly turn this country into an impoverished co-operative ant-hill, with no room for differential abilities to flourish. In a harshly competitive world they are a prescription for national decay. The unsolved problem that confronts the Tory Party is how to re-establish in Britain the envy-free climate of a free society.

The Conservatives did win the next election in 1959, but after their latest surprise victory over the politics of envy, the Tories can’t be complacent. They now need to prove that they’re the party of social mobility as well as wealth creation. In the last few decades, a depressing idea has gained traction among quite a lot of reasonably intelligent people who only keep half an eye on politics: being left wing means you’re nice and being right wing means you want to make poor people’s lives worse.

As David Cameron said during the Question Time election debate, creating jobs and opportunities is a moral issue, not just an economic one, but a lot of people who like to call themselves ‘progressive’ seem to think of economics and morality as connected only in a sinister way. Nicholas Davenport went so far as to reach for the Bible to try to dismantle this idea in an article in 1975.

No one envies the worker or the clerk who wins half a million on the pools. Why do they envy the man who has worked hard to make his fortune and has added to the wealth-creating resources of the state? Why do they put a surcharge of tax on his or his widow’s investment income which is derived from his past savings and hard work? Why discourage savings? Why discourage hard work?

I would refer the pious puritan who envies wealth to the parable of the talents (Matthew, Chapter 25). The servant of the lord who had made his five talents grow to ten (by wise investment in the money or gilt-edged market) is commended while the servant who hid his one talent in the earth (e.g. a state pension scheme) is rebuked as a wicked and slothful servant. The meaning of the parable is that if you have a talent you should use it profitably. The state which drives its talented wealth-creators abroad will slowly decline and end in bankruptcy.

If the Labour Government on the strength of the Royal Commission’s report were now to drop their silly egalitarianism and set up a public unit trust, in which workers would participate, they would focus public attention on the creation of wealth, on the productivity of new investment, and within a decade there would be no trace of any maldistribution of wealth. It would be all in the hands of the workers, that is, if they put their backs into a productivity drive and did not insist on new machines being manned by the same number of men. As our national friend Professor Galbraith has said. “The one thing we know is that an economy that wants an egalitarian standard of living has to produce a lot more”.

Whichever candidate the Labour party selects, they’d do well to look at how many elections Labour has lost by being hopeless at economics, forgetting that wealth needs to be created before it’s distributed, and by desperately clinging to the politics of envy.


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