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Untruth is not always communicated in outright lies. There is a type of blinkered misapprehension which presents misleading and inauthentic concepts. None of us are immune to this failing and all of us need to keep it under informed scrutiny. But it often seems to come to the fore in politicians in a manner which does at the very least, raise questions as to their judgement and credibility.
Last week, Michael Gove laid a questionable trail regarding the 'March for the Alternative' as described by Simon Barrow in his blog 'Preparing the violent protesters narrative for the anti-cuts march' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14415). During the same interview on Radio 4's 'Today' programme, Gove complained about the “personalising” of the debate along the lines of there being 18 millionaires in the cabinet and protested that neither he nor Eric Pickles were “ the sons of privilege”, citing their use of public services as proof of that claim.
It may be true that neither of these ministers are the heirs of privilege in the manner of the extraordinarily wealthy Prime Minister and his Chancellor, but the salaries these two men received as MPs (£65,738) and their present ministerial salaries of £134,565, put them in a position which most of us would consider to be very advantageous indeed.
Should they feel the need to avail themselves of private medical care or private provision for their children, it would not be beyond their means to do so. Most of the inconveniences of cuts in public services will impact far less heavily on them than on millions of their fellow citizens. They will not reach the end of a week agonising as to whether to pay the gas bill or buy food for their children, nor will they be left in desperate circumstances because of cuts in health provision, day care, youth services, refugee support or legal aid.
The minimum wage delivers £12,400 per annum for a 40 hour week; the UK median wage is £23,305. Even the basic salary of an MP places its recipients in another sphere in regard to the experiences which it enables, even before ministerial remuneration us taken into account.
Wages are not the whole story. There is a privilege generated by confidence and connections, by the capacity and potential which comes from what Lord Young of Dartington called “being a member of the lucky sperm club”.
A child born into a family which teaches the values of application and sets the example of its practise, is halfway down the track whilst others are still struggling to reach the starting line. To live in a pleasant and safe neighbourhood and to attend a good school is also a boon which should never be taken for granted.
Gove's father ran his own business, which is not necessarily a passport to wealth, but is certainly a step further up the ladder of expectation and confidence than that of a child of parents who are unemployed or who are subject to casual and insecure working. He was privately educated – via a scholarship – and went to Oxford: two circumstances offering networking possibilities with huge potential for later advancement.
Before entering parliament, Eric Pickles was a local councillor, a member of the Yorkshire Regional Health Authority and a consultant in employment practice. I do not suggest that this has made him wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but it is evidence of a well-connected man who knows how to operate within systems which are influential in our common life and which are consequently advantageous in ways which are unthinkable for so many people.
There is a common calumny frequently advanced by the right that left-wingers are consumed by class envy and resentment of success. Not so. We desire that opportunities should be disseminated as widely as possible. We do not decry or resent the achievements of people from ordinary backgrounds. But we do ask that such individuals do not forget these words of the Christian Socialist Richard Tawney: “While ... natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation."
Where our legislators choose to ignore this truth or to consider their own circumstances as examples of mutuality, they must be challenged by the reality of wider experience. Drawing up the ladder of empathy and humility behind yourself is not a good look.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
Ekklesia's 2011 Budget coverage and comment can be accessed at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/Budget2011Tweet