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Patrick Murphy: Political events reflect growing gap between rich and poor

Patrick Murphy

Somewhere in the sky there is a great political scriptwriter with a quirky sense of humour and a love of the unexpected. Well, that's one explanation for the many unusual political developments at home and abroad in the past year.

You know the sort of thing: Brexit; Trump's election; Stormont's collapse; Theresa May's unexpected election and more unexpected result; Jeremy Corbyn's electoral popularity and political fall-out from the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.

Of course, it might be explained as God's will, Jupiter being in Sagittarius or perhaps mere coincidence. While the events may have been due to any or all of the above, a more reasonable explanation is that they reflect political reaction to the growing gap between rich and poor in Western society.

Changing attitudes among the dispossessed are now impacting on mainstream politics.

The current situation stems from the 1980s when President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher swung British and American politics to the right. They preached that greed was good, there was no such thing as society and since the free market would regulate the economy, governments could reduce public spending.

(Here, we tended to miss all that at the time. We were rather busy killing each other for a cause which was subsequently relegated to a call for a border poll.)

The collapse of European communism in 1989 gave Reagan and Thatcher new credibility and their policies became the West's economic gospel. Thatcher said, "Our job is to glory in inequality" because the excessive wealth of the few would trickle down to the rest of us.

You may have noticed that the trickling did not quite work as promised. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently stated that the earnings gap between the top and bottom ten per cent in 34 Western countries has increased seven times since the 1980s.

That shaved about nine percentage points off British economic growth between 1990 and 2000. Inequality restricts the economy.

No one took much notice until the great recession of 2008 proved that an unregulated market does not work, because it assumes (wrongly) that there is a limit to human greed.

The recession left the poor poorer and the bankers richer. In the US, political reaction found a home in Trump's "Make America Great Again". It was a dishonest campaign, but it was apparently anti-establishment, so it worked.

In Britain, the kick-back came in the Brexit referendum, when abandoned communities in England's northern rust-belt protest-voted with a vengeance.

Well-heeled Irish politicians scoffed at them as little Englanders, but they were merely opposing 30 years of Thatcherism. The same mood among the electorate lost Theresa May her working parliamentary majority and gave Jeremy Corbyn's Marxist policies a new relevance. (When did you last hear Marx mentioned in mainstream British politics?)

Stormont's implementation of Tory public sector cuts led to its unpopularity. Sinn Féin walked away, claiming that it had no responsibility for Stormont's actions, even though it cut 3,000 public sector jobs. Now Stormont has cut funds for nursing education.

Meanwhile the gap between rich and poor was starkly illustrated in the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Clad in material which was £2 per square foot cheaper than a safer product, the flats housed some of the poorest in society.

Referring to the victims, Anglican vicar, Fr Robert Thompson (originally from Portadown) commendably suggested that some people "are just excess debris for our neoliberal, unequal, individualistic, capitalist and consumerist culture". Sadly, this is not the type of Christian sentiment we often hear from Irish churches.

Instead our churches and politicians have offered little moral leadership in analysing the growing inequality in Irish society, north and south. Northern politicians continue their grandstanding, content to gorge themselves on their own sectarian self-importance, oblivious to the hardships of the real world, its real people and their real problems.

Based on competing claims to foresee a better future, they have developed a political culture which, if you will forgive the phrase, puts prophets before people.

This week the Equality Commission reported that Catholics had to wait longer than Protestants for social housing. The problem is not discrimination. It is a severe shortage of social housing. But there are no equality laws to close the gap between rich and poor and no social and economic commission to highlight the need for them.

Recent unexpected political developments have arisen because the current concept of equality tends to ignore our growing social and economic divide. It is unlikely to do so in the future. Which is why that great political script-writer in the sky will not run out of ideas any time soon.

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