The Politics of Envy

I remember, in the course of one of my spats with the controversial historian Niall Ferguson, his maintaining in an email to me that he regarded most criticisms of his work as motivated by envy of his ‘fame and fortune’. I’ve envied neither – would hate to be in Niall’s shoes – and so felt rather insulted by that. I’ve always deliberately avoided ‘fame’, and never wanted more money than I can comfortably get along with. I’m not even ‘competitive’, so far as my ‘career’ is concerned. Merely a seeker after truth, that’s me. (!)

In Parliament yesterday, in the debate over tax havens arising from the ‘Panama Papers’ disclosures, several Conservative MPs similarly attributed the furore that has arisen over tax avoidance to what they called ‘the politics of envy’, from the other side. That’s a common charge. ‘Labour just hates people who are rich’, claimed Sir Alan Duncan. The only reason for that was that they would like to be rich too. They were jealous. I suspect that people like Duncan genuinely do believe that everyone is like that: out for him or her self. It’s a basic law of human nature. Anyone who denies it – a self-styled ‘truth seeker’, for example – is being hypocritical.

Envy of course is in direct contravention to the Tenth Commandment, ‘thou shalt not covet’. But only insofar as it applies to the plebs. For covetousness at a higher level is supposed to be the very engine of progress in society. It is what drives ‘aspiration’, a word that the Prime Minister repeated at least a dozen times in the course of the debate. It may be this thought that led Moses (or whoever) to slip ‘covetousness’ into the Commandments schedule only right at the end. (It probably just edged out ‘Thou shalt not play golf.’) That aside, becoming rich is the only respectable motive for ‘aspiration’. And being rich is the main indication that you have aspired successfully.

It’s this idea that seems to lie at the root of Alan Duncan’s second extraordinary claim yesterday: that if you somehow discouraged rich people from becoming MPs – by tightening the rules on tax avoidance, for example – you would end up with a parliament ‘stuffed full of low achievers, who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family, and know nothing about the outside world.’

The Labour MP Liz Kendall immediately seized on the ‘cretinous’ implication of this: that ‘you can only be a high achiever if you make a packet of money.’ I’ve come across this attitude before, at Cambridge college reunions some years ago, for example, when contemporaries who had gone on to become something big in the City tended to regard me as a ‘low achiever’ for having stayed in low-paid academe. They were very kind about it. (And they’ve become a lot less cocky since the crash of 2008.) So I was already familiar with this way of thinking. But Duncan’s words yesterday were the most public and explicit expression of it I have seen for many years.

It’s also at one, of course, with the pitch Donald Trump is making in America: that his ‘success’ as a businessman is what qualifies him to be President. In my view it’s what especially disqualifies him. But that’s probably just me being envious.

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