Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polly_Toynbee) turned 70 a few weeks ago. The celebrated Guardian columnist has got more sensible things to say than dozens of hair brained media pundits put together.

To enjoy a book length exposition of her thoughts I’d start with Unjust Rewards, co-authored with David Walker. It concerns the obscene level of riches that are being grabbed by the top ‘earners’ in Britain today. Unjust Rewards isn’t a barrel of laughs. It’s evidence-based, and deploys incontrovertible facts and social science sources very seriously. Thus the deeply unfunny fact that the UK pay gap between the best and worst paid employees has widened vastly. The average FTSE 100 CEO’s earnings went from an average 17 times ordinary employees’ pay in 1988 to 75 times the average in 2008; i.e. the gap has more than quadrupled, according to the Institute of Directors.

Now, more than at any time since 1945, class and family are destiny for a child. In terms of real-life chances rather than innate talent, it’s family money that matters. The baby-boomer meritocrats have made sure that a second generation won’t make it up and out in the same way. Toynbee and Walker shred all the familiar Tory pleading. Financial trickle-down simply doesn’t happen without tax intervention. The constant argument for super-normal rewards – that you’ve got to retain top people in an international super-labour market – doesn’t bear close examination either. The world may like British actors and designers but it isn’t constantly waiting at the door for our businessmen – we’re more likely to import CEOs, bankers and lawyers than export them.

The sense of entitlement among the rich is nauseating. In the first chapter Walker and Toynbee describe what they hear from a group discussion in the City among bankers and lawyers earning anything from £150,000 to £10 million. These people have entered a different world, but they think they’re ordinary middle-class. Their idea of the nursery slopes of high pay in the population at large, the entry point to the top 10 per cent of earnings, is £162,000 (it’s £39,825, where the top 40 per cent tax-band starts). And they think poverty begins at £22,000, only just under median national earnings. The official poverty line for a childless couple is £11,284. Leading company bosses now typically earn 129 times more – including pensions and bonuses – than their employees (in 2016 ,https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/08/uks-top-bosses-earned-10-pay-rise-2015-average-salary-hit-55m). No one individual’s work or efforts could possibly justify that level of reward. Put it the other way around. Imagine the NHS nurse exhausted at the end of each day by the bone crunching demands of a hospital shift. Imagine the teacher in a state school worn down by the pressure and expectation of large class sizes and attainment targets. Are the efforts of these exemplary workers worth 129 times less than those of company bosses? Of course not.

The polls are now showing growing concern about inequality. People here and in America want the sellers of poisonous ‘derivatives’ behind the banking crash in prison, not handed massive pay-offs. And the widespread dissaffection has led directly to Brexit here, and Trump in America. In 2001, just after Auberon Waugh, the poster boy of the anarchic Right, died, Toynbee critiqued him comprehensively in her Guardian column as nasty, snobbish and misogynistic, ‘a reactionary fogey whose sneers seriously damaged this country’. She drew a sharp group portrait of the Right-Wing Gentleman Hack set, its language, dress-code retro-affectations and its sustaining fantasies. They’ve hated her ever since. But Matthew Parris admitted in The Spectator that ‘her essay was sincere and brave and contained an awful truth. It was one of the finest pieces of journalism I have read.’ Unjust Rewards should be compulsory reading for all those money grabbers who believe they should grab a massively larger slice of the cake just because they can.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

256 pages in Granta Books

First published 2009

ISBN  978-1847080967

Polly Toynbee

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