Dr Giles Fraser: The wealth divide in Tower Hamlets is a violation of Britons’ sense of fairness
A walk from Bethnal Green to Canary Wharf offers clear proof that wealth is sucked upwards and never trickles down.
“It’s not fair,” is my 10-year-old son’s standard response to pretty much any parental intervention he doesn’t like. From sleepovers to sweet distribution, fairness is the watchful eye of jealous siblings. Little wonder that fairness as a moral ideal can be dismissed as hazy romanticism and the ethical imperative of the green-eyed monster. Yet us Brits pride ourselves on being fair. And we don’t require some extended philosophy of fairness in order to recognise unfairness when we see it.
On Monday, Tower Hamlets launched a Fairness Commission, which I have been asked to chair. I am especially excited by this, not least because this is my favourite part of London. As a young priest, I worked in a homeless centre in Aldgate, washing dirty feet and helping people organise their benefit. I remember as if it were yesterday a homeless woman, M, who was always especially rude and ungrateful.
Later, over lunch at the wonderful Bloom’s restaurant, I shared my irritation with a colleague. She explained that M used to live a perfectly normal life in north London until one day a fire destroyed her home and killed her children. She had been deliberately homeless ever since and could never bring herself to sleep inside a house. M had been driven mad by grief. Never again have I been so quick to presume I understand the pressures other people operate under. For some, life is horrendously unfair.
But there are some forms of gross unfairness that are not, as it were, metaphysical – making you want to swear at the gods – but entirely practical and within human control. Tower Hamlets is, at the same time, one of the richest and one of the poorest parts of Britain. It has the highest rate of child poverty in the country and yet the average salary of those who work in the borough is �58,000, the second highest in the UK after the City of London. This is a place where many kids sleep six to a room yet the borough has an economy worth more than �6bn a year, higher than places such as Malta or Monaco. We were told by the Thatcherites of the 80s that wealth would trickle down.
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Tower Hamlets is proof positive that it doesn’t. If anything, it flows the other way. Have a walk around Bow and Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. Then go to the great glass towers of Canary Wharf, still in the borough but in all other ways another world completely. No, wealth is sucked upwards, it doesn’t trickle down.
During the second world war, as the East End was being blown to smithereens, there developed a strong belief that everyone was in it together. Rationing preserved a sense of togetherness, that the effects of austerity would be shared, managed together as a communal burden. This was one-nation Britain, this was the “big society”. From the end of the war to the 80s, the idea that fairness was importantly linked with equality of outcome shaped the national conversation, delivering such much-loved institutions as the NHS. This was fairness.
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But the Thatcherites destroyed all this. They thought the emphasis on equality was itself a moral problem, hindering enterprise. Freedom was to be the new moral watchword – which, for the right, meant the freedom for some people to get as rich as they could. The Blairites were intensely relaxed about all of this as long as the poor were themselves pulled along in the slipstream. But they weren’t. The gap between rich and poor widened with every passing year and with huge social consequences.
Today in Tower Hamlets, rich men live 11 years longer than poor men. And cuts and austerity have a long way to run over the next few years. But those who caused the economy to impale itself on its own greed remain protected from the consequences of their behaviour. Unfairness needs no deeper philosophy to explain it than this.