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Progress and the gentleman from The Times

A startling column by Matthew Parris shows that concern about excessive pay is shared across the political spectrum

Readers of The Times on Saturday may have been surprised to read a column by the ever-popular Matthew Parris, which condemned the pay gap between top executives and the rest of us as unacceptable and unsustainable.

"Capitalism is supposed to cascade wealth down, so why does it seem to be cascading up?" he wrote. "And why is the abuse getting worse? We who were once young Conservatives all know the script. Free enterprise pumps prosperity right round society. Okay, a rice paddy here or a sink council estate there might miss out for a while, but that’s just a little stickiness in the system; a wrinkle to be ironed out; a glitch. Well, how big does a glitch need to get before it’s a hole slap through the middle of a theory?

Parris' column was in part inspired by Oxfam's recent report on global inequality. But he also cited High Pay Centre data on FTSE100 chief executive pay as clinching evidence in his argument.

His conclusion was striking:

"I do believe in moral progress. 21st-century western man finds grotesque disparities of income within one society odious. People won’t stand for it. 21st-century western politicians, including the 21st-century British Conservative party, are going to have to take that as a given.

"This column, then, ends at the starting-line: with a time-honoured 'something must be done'. We should take seriously Jeremy Corbyn’s thoughts on wage differentials. He and others have made proposals: rules on a maximum ratio between the highest and lowest earners; wage-related curbs on the payment of dividends to shareholders; the public shaming of miscreant employers. Some or all of these proposals may be crackpot. Knock them down if you can. But then move on to asking how else we can do it. If the free market is to be defended in the new century, these inequities are no longer something from which the centre-right can turn away."

Matthew Parris is not perhaps one of the "usual suspects" as far as criticism of excessive pay is concerned. Michael Gove, the justice secretary, also surprised some observers when he warned delegates to the Conservative party conference in Manchester last October about the impact of the "undeserving rich".

It could be that we are reaching an interesting moment in the ongoing debate over excessive rewards in our society.

 

Posted on 25 January 2016

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