Last week, BBC1 aired a programme called Millionaire Basement Wars. It described how, over the past decade, some 2,000 new basements have been excavated beneath high-value properties in central London, most notably in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. The buildings are often listed, so there’s little scope to extend up or out. That only leaves down.
Some basements are merely one-storey. Some are two-storey. Some, known as ‘icebergs’, are bigger than the house above them. They provide room for all those essentials that wouldn’t otherwise fit. The cinema. The gym. The sauna. The swimming pool. The hairdressing, manicure and pedicure suite. The garage for five classic cars. In one case, the developer provided an indoor, underground waterfall, 30 feet high. Why? Rich people get bored easily, he explained, so they need something to talk about.
That’s the problem with extreme wealth. It’s so boring. There’s a point beyond which increased wealth doesn’t make you any happier. All it does is deprive others of the happiness that that wealth, better distributed, could have given them. Economic efficiency without social efficiency doesn’t deliver the greatest good of the greatest number. ‘Trickle-down economics’ just distorts priorities, increasing the production of, say, caviar rather than hospitals.
Saying this isn’t ‘envy’ at all. Envy is wanting a better life for yourself and expecting somebody else to do something about it. Wanting a better life for everyone isn’t envy. It’s justice. The Scandinavians have a phrase for their supportive social welfare system that explains why they also have a culture of enterprise: ‘secure enough to dare’.
Of course, the same is true of power. When you think what could be done, locally and regionally, with just a fraction of the taxes we send up to London every year to subsidise the infrastructure of imaginary money-making, it’s enough to leave you feeling genuinely sick.
We’ve allowed ourselves to become the easy victims of a narrative of aspiration. One in which the minor folk turn on each other and not on those whose industrial-scale grasping is what makes us minor. ‘Hard-working families’ has become the must-have soundbite for all politicians with ambition. You can almost hear the anxious twitching of curtains and the rumbustious rustling of today’s Daily Mail. There are two things wrong with it. One, naturally. is the idea that only families count. That those working too hard to have time to form a family contribute nothing to society. The other is that ‘hard work’ is easily recognisable. It isn’t.
In the commercial sector, hard work will get you nowhere if what you’re working hard on isn’t profitable. It’s the quality – that’s to say, the relevance – of what you’re doing that matters, not its quantity. Working smarter, not harder, is the key to productivity and profitability. All economy, as Karl Marx noted, is economy of labour time. In 1932 Bertrand Russell wrote a very perceptive essay entitled In Praise of Idleness, in which he pointed out that ultimately the purpose of work is to create the ability to stop doing it. That in turn poses other questions. How much of the work we currently do is necessary work? How much of it would we miss if it weren’t there?
Arguably, a lot, perhaps most, of the work we do is highly damaging, psychologically, socially and environmentally, in which case our quality of life would be greatly improved not by economic growth but by economic shrinkage. High net immigration is a sign of an unhealthy economy, one that is taking more than its fair share of the world’s resources and so dragging in the inhabitants of other countries who have come here to follow their wealth. Internal migration, with London as the magnet, is another aspect of the same phenomenon, driven in that case by the power that London has to tax the provinces for its benefit. The only solutions that the London parties can imagine – like HS2 – do not enable those provinces to serve themselves but only reinforce metropolitan dominance. Underpinning them all is the silly idea that we can have more growth in total, let alone that we need it or want it.
We can see the outlines of a better solution forming but before we examine it further, let’s remind ourselves how irrelevant the London parties are to it.
The Blue Tories have been so busy lately promising give-aways it’s a wonder they’ve not been arrested for corrupt electoral practices. Right-to-Buy is always a vote-winner because who’s going to vote against free money? Since the super-rich don’t pay tax, it’s the squeezed middle who’ll foot the bill and they always vote for the Blue Tories anyway. Plus, they can be pacified by exempting up-to-one-million-pound properties from Inheritance Tax. Those whose homes have accelerated in value while they sat back and did nothing will enrich their children and consider it all their own really ‘hard work’. As we’ve shown, half of all Inheritance Tax receipts come from London and the south-eastern corner of England. It’s the taxes of every other corner that have created the boom economy there and it’s the taxes of every other corner too that will make up the shortfall in UK Government revenue if no tax is paid on homes up to £1 million.
Do we have the right to be angry? Wait and see.
The Yellow Tories’ pitch to the public is that they’re the party to rein-in the extremes. Without their moderating presence we could see radical change. Cameron-Farage. Or even Miliband-Sturgeon. Time was when the Liberals viewed themselves as radicals. Middle-of-the-road radicals maybe, but at least nominally radical. There’s a strong possibility though that they’ve misread the times in which they now operate. There’s a thirst for change, with Scotland leading the charge. And that thirst for change operates in the wider context of a European revolt against Wall Street corporate colonialism and its dismantling of democracy. The way money is being shovelled into the Purple Tories shows how far even the old guard have lost trust in the established parties and want things shaken up, just a little.
The Greens are promising to build 500,000 homes, against the 200,000 promised by both Blues and Reds. (The Yellows want 300,000, including at leastten new garden cities.) In the areas under pressure, there isn’t enough derelict land to provide anywhere near those sort of figures. So if you’re not comfortable with seeing the Wessex countryside transformed into New West London, that’s yet another option to cross off the list. What’s “green” about turning (mostly) greenfield sites into half a million houses?
The Red Tories look every bit as irrelevant as the rest. When Miliband tries to position them as the voice of working people throughout the UK, it’s a muffled echo from the 70s that won’t do any more. Who are really the selfish nationalists? The SNP, who speak for Scotland and ignore the other home nations (while practising a genuine internationalism)? Or Labour, who speak for the UK and ignore the rest of Europe (while boldly going wherever the White House directs)? Labour are trying to tap into a sense of British-based solidarity that died with the industries Thatcher slaughtered. For three decades they’ve been trying to get it back. They can’t admit they’ve failed. And that’s why they’re being superseded.
We look forward to the continuing wipe-out of the Unionist parties in Scotland. In Wales, it will take longer. Despite Leanne Wood’s master stroke in describing the London parties as four shades of grey, the fact is that the Welsh seem to like their bondage too much to break free of it right now. It is, however, only a matter of time. Renewed interest in regionalism and federalism within England points to a generalised demand for self-government that will not stop at Celtic borders. And will not be content with any cobbled-together nonsense of metro mayors or combined authorities either.
What we’re seeing is a convergence of several themes. Perhaps the most pivotal is the rise to real power of the first generation who lived through Thatcherism as young adults, who watched the kindlier world of their childhood being shattered by brash London loadsamoneys, backed up by a semi-fascist State with no respect for local democracy. (A State that aped Labour instead of really challenging it.) No wonder there’s a thirst for change: vengeance has been long awaited.
Such change requires a framework for action, one which the idea of a Europe of small nations and historic regions readily provides. The scale of change throughout Europe over the next decade, as one country copies another, could well match that which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. This time it will be the turn of the old imperial states of western Europe and the smug elites they defend. The only role here for dinosaurs like France, Spain or the UK is to keep getting in the way until patience can be contained no longer.
At the regional level, and that of small nations of equivalent scale, there’s a lot of work to be done, in creating new institutions, breathing life into long-suppressed identities, and in taking back our stolen wealth and power from London and its co-conspirators. At the European level, there’s even more to be done. To break the economic and political stranglehold of the USA and awake to our common interest as Europeans. To take the banking system apart and bring to justice the thieves who run it. To create the climate of thought that will allow our vital industries and services to be taken back into common ownership with little or no compensation payable to those who have sucked them dry. To end private landed estates not through the minor irritant of taxation but through a radical re-evaluation of title.
Those who wait for the Labour Party to even consider such a programme will wait for ever. The programme is one that needs to be more radical than anything on Attlee’s agenda in 1945. Even to do as much as Attlee did is impossible in today’s Britain. It won’t be done at the British level, because the British level is now irrelevant. It’s a job for the Europe of a Hundred Flags. Change will come about through the growth of nationalist and regionalist parties that are not afraid to define London as their adversary. Not the London of ordinary Londoners but the London of assumptions, assumptions of innate superiority in politics, economics and culture.
Labour cannot deliver that. Labour have their sights on way too many marginals in London and the surrounding shires to ever be credible as an authentic voice for marginalised Britain. Labour have no plans to cut off London’s drip-feed of our tax money. Labour have no plans to abolish entire Whitehall departments in favour of genuine localism. They have no plans to get even with the parasitical City of London. They have no plans to shut down huge swaths of London’s cultural funding and disperse it across the UK. That is why the nationalist and regionalist parties must do all of this for them.