Laurie Penny: “Why, frankly, isn’t Parliament Square on fire?”


How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary…


New Statesman



How much is a politician worth? According to MPs, the answer is “about four times as much as the average worker”. This month, an anonymous parliamentary survey found that most MPs wanted to see their £65,738 salary rise to roughly £86,250 – an increase of 32 per cent, putting them squarely in the top 5 per cent of earners. That’s before you include the second homes, travel, subsidised meals, perks and entertainment that continue to cost the rest of us millions every year. As most of us struggle with plummeting wages and living standards, the more interesting question is: “Why aren’t there riots in the streets?”

In case you’ve been out of the country or washing your socks for the past four years, here’s some context: in 2009 every major political party in Britain was rocked by an expenses scandal that led to a nationwide crisis and helped kick off a series of street protests. Here we are in 2013, and not only are the same politicians still milking the system and getting away with it, they’re actually asking for a large pay rise.

Meanwhile, as social security is cut to starvation levels, the very rich will be enjoying a 5 per cent tax cut from April. By this point, people like me who point and squawk at social injustice for a living have repeated phrases such as “it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us” until the words begin to lose all meaning. By this point, nobody’s pretending any more.

There may, in recent memory, have been a time when it was modish to pretend that Britain was a land of opportunity where class was an outdated concept and poverty merely relative, but that time is over. Most of us know far too well that we’re living in a staggeringly unequal society, one where the gulf between rich and poor is growing wider year on year. Parents have begun to resign themselves to the idea that their children will grow up to be poorer than them; young people leaving school are gently abandoning the idea of a stable home, a secure job and a decent wage. Why do we continue to accept this situation? Why – let’s be frank – isn’t Parliament Square on fire?

We put up with it in part for the same reason that our politicians feel it entirely appropriate to request a 32 per cent pay rise in the middle of a double-dip recession: because of a new morality of money and power that justifies inequality. Since this government was elected in 2010, the right-wing press has pumped out a torrent of propaganda declaring that those on benefits are “shirkers”, whereas those who are rich and powerful deserve their wealth, because of their “hard work”.

Most people defending a salary rise for MPs and large bonuses for City workers do so using the disclaimer that bankers and politicians “work hard”. The test that has decided that a banker works 20 times as hard as a teaching assistant has not been identified, because it doesn’t exist.

Undoubtedly, our members of parliament work extremely hard. So do nurses, teachers and call-centre workers. So do the police officers who this week are having their starting salaries cut by £4,000 to £19,000 a year. And so do the single parents and tax-credit recipients whose vital social security payments MPs have voted to slash. How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary: it is, as today’s politicians understand very well, proportional to their power and privilege. We don’t like to talk about power in this country, though; instead, we talk about “hard work”.

You don’t need an in-depth grasp of post-Fordist economics to get this. The single mum sobbing in the benefits office may or may not have had the time to read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom but she has internalised its logic, and so have the rest of us: the idea that the free market, despite all evidence to the contrary, rewards everyone justly and therefore we all deserve what we end up with.

Right now, when politicians speak of “workers” and “shirkers”, they mean “rich” and “poor” – and they know which side they’re on. The logic of work and power is turned on its head. Our leaders and the superrich are praised as “hard workers” but if someone else is poor and powerless, they are told it’s their fault because they didn’t work hard enough, even if they are manifestly pulling double shifts and raising a family alone.

The logic of this might not hold for much longer. Eighteen months ago, when riots raged in England, the kids in hoods smashing up the high street listed bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses among the reasons for their disaffection, though it was said that these young people just really, really wanted a new pair of trainers.

This year, the desperation is deeper and there are no Olympics to distract us. How long can the logic of inequality, the logic of “workers” and “shirkers”, withstand public rage?

Editor’s Note: The print version of this column contained an incorrect reference to a 1996 UN report. This has been removed.



28 thoughts on “Laurie Penny: “Why, frankly, isn’t Parliament Square on fire?”

  1. Boadacia! says:

    Hear! hear! Couldn’t have written it better. I just wonder how long and how much torture will the British people take before they explode in revulsion at the politicians? I thought we all had French DNA?

  2. Kelpiemare says:

    Boudica, I don’t know about French blood, but I’m pretty sure there’s Celt blood flowing in millions of us-and since we Celts resisted and overcame Rome, let’s resist and trounce these useless thickos of elitism(now there’s an oxymoron) that are swanning about, at OUR expense, all around the world.

  3. Thomas says:

    All it needs is enough people protesting without at the same time hurting people, stealing and running amok, and this government will fall.

  4. Boadacia! says:

    The only action these types understand is a threat to their luxury lives and an end to their corrupt privileges and power. Unfortunately history teaches those that study it, that this is rarely achieved by passive protesting. We have to give them back some of the fear they hand out, or they and their Media controllers will cloak it from the ignorant public.

    1. Christopher says:

      As I have said many times I don’t condone violence, normally, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about this situation.. I can see, very soon too, that there will be trouble.

      But I can also see the Governments agenda in all of this..sneaky little fuckers.. They egg us on to cause unrest, fight and destroy property etc so they can send in the Stormtroopers then apply even harsher sanctions

      1. Kelpiemare says:

        Re government stormtroopers…starting wage for police has been cut by £4000 a year. Police numbers being cut. Military being cut whilst gov advertises for volunteers for TAs. Cameron trying to turn Africa into his Muggie the hatchet Thatcher’s Falklands. Still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Robber barons in govt might find “their” stormtroopers less inclined to quieten any public demonstrations, after all, they’re being betrayed too.

        1. Christopher says:

          Very true K..I forgot to take that into account. Get those guys on our side, or at least not in our faces, and maybe the revolution will work 🙂

    2. Bennet Kingston says:

      That’s right. Whenever there are riots, they always trot out the old “violence never solved anything” phrase, yet they still seem happy to spend billions perpetuating violence in Iraq & Afghanistan.

  5. MPH says:

    Hopefully not long.

    As to the reason why Parliament Square isn’t in flames, I thought politicians had banned all demonstrations within a radius of one mile of the House…. Nice big gates on Downing Street too…

    I suspect it’s gonna be bad.

  6. alan says:

    pm questions yesterday dc was asked about a man on 2pound a day to survive on and he brushed it of .if he needs help go to jcplus how can a man do that this man probably voted for dc and this how he treats people it can cost 2pound to feed a dog each day should sanction government humainly of course and give them 2pound a day to survive mps

  7. carol larkin says:

    Nobody wants demonstrations riots and violence, but unless the goverment change things fairly for the poor and working class the sick and our children, what alternative is there for us there will be nothing left for us to lose, we should not be put down without putting up a fight for our lifes, i say lifes because this goverment are trying to strip away everything from us including our dignity, people are already taking there own lifes in this country because they feel so destitute useless and rejected, and this is what this evil govement want there way of decreseing the suplus population, lets pray they are taken to the court of human rights for the suffering they are inflicting on the vulnrable of this country, im bound to get some hard hearted remarks from some people out there and i know who you will be, people who have never had to worry about how you will feed your children and keep them warm, and no i am not even speaking of unemployed people i am speaking of people lucky enough to be in paid employment still struggling to live because of the pittance paid by companies, same old story again use the poor to make the rich richer then help them to self destruct after.

  8. We are Watt Tyler says:

    Wat Tyler’s Rebellion – 1381 A. D.

    The Court of Common Pleas (the civil court, as opposed to the Court of King’s Bench, the criminal court) decided early in the 14th century that it “didn’t have time for the affairs of peasants.” The peasants immediately recognized that they had no rights enforceable at law.

    By 1340 the judges in England had become so enamored of their own procedural technicalities that civil disputes languished for years. The English Parliament enacted a statute that year which allowed the Commissioners to move the judges aside and adjudicate their own cases.

    In 1348 the Black Death reached England. As many as half of the people in the country died. The feudal lords, short of tenants, tried to make those remaining work even harder. Most of the people in England were treated no better than animals.

    The common people had another barrier in their quest for rights. All English court documents from 1066 to 1500 A. D. were written in what is today called “law French.” Most of the men who could teach the language were dead of the Plague.

    In 1381 the effort to strictly enforce the collection of taxes created discontent throughout England. Wat Tyler’s rebellion was ignited when a tax collector tried to make a determination that Wat Tyler’s daughter was of taxable age (15) by stripping her naked and assaulting her. Tyler, who was working close by, heard the screams of his wife and daughter, came running and smashed in the tax collector’s skull with a hammer. He was cheered by his neighbors and the commoners of the western division of Kent were brought together by his courage. Wat Tyler was elected their leader.

    Wat Tyler’s group joined another group led by two itinerant priests named John Ball and Jack Straw, and rose 100,000 strong to invade London. The enraged mob broke open every prison and beheaded every judge and lawyer they could capture. They were not allowed to enrich themselves in their rioting. Valuables found in their midst were destroyed. One man who hid a silver cup on his person was thrown into the river as punishment for his misdeed and as an example to others to refrain from such behavior.

    They surrounded Richard II, who asked them what they wanted. Their answer was, “We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands.” Richard II agreed.

    In a face-to-face meeting with Wat Tyler a short time later, Richard II ordered the Lord Mayor of London to “set hands on him.” Tyler was stabbed through the throat with a short sword and, as he lay writhing in agony on the ground after falling off his horse, stabbed through the belly.

    Watching from a distance the peasants instantly arranged themselves in order of battle with their longbows. Richard II rode up to them and said, “Wat Tyler was a traitor. I’ll be your leader.” Confused, the peasants followed the king until his soldiers met him and dispersed the crowd.

    Minus their leader, the peasants went home. Richard reneged on his promises and hanged 1500 of the rebels after “jury trials.” Those trials were presided over by Judge John Tresilian, who told the jurors in each case that he would hang them if they didn’t convict.

    Tresilian was hanged himself seven years later.

    Richard II was forced to abdicate in 1399.

    The English legal system continued to incite wars and rebellions until Englishmen, Scots, and Irish threw off the yoke of English legal tyranny in the American colonies in 1776 and Ireland gained most of her independence in 1921.

  9. We Are Watt Tyler says:

    Wat Tyler’s rebellion (1381)

    The first great popular rebellion in English history. Its immediate cause was the imposition of the unpopular poll tax of 1381, which brought to a head the economic discontent that had been growing since the middle of the century. The rebellion drew support from several sources and included well-to-do artisans and villeins as well as the destitute. Probably the main grievance of the agricultural labourers and urban working classes was the Statute of Labourers (1351), which attempted to fix maximum wages during the labour shortage following the Black Death.

    The uprising was centred in the southeastern counties and East Anglia, with minor disturbances in other areas. It began in Essex in May, taking the government of the young king Richard II by surprise. In June rebels from Essex and Kent marched toward London. On the 13th the Kentish men, under Wat Tyler, entered London, where they massacred some Flemish merchants and razed the palace of the king’s uncle, the unpopular John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The government was compelled to negotiate. On the 14th Richard met the men of Essex outside London at Mile End, where he promised cheap land, free trade, and the abolition of serfdom and forced labour. During the king’s absence, the Kentish rebels in the city forced the surrender of the Tower of London; the chancellor, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, both of whom were held responsible for the poll tax, were beheaded.

    The king met Tyler and the Kentishmen at Smithfield on the following day. Tyler was treacherously cut down in Richard’s presence by the enraged mayor of London. The king, with great presence of mind, appealed to the rebels as their sovereign and, after promising reforms, persuaded them to disperse. The crisis in London was over, but in the provinces the rebellion reached its climax in the following weeks. It was finally ended when the rebels in East Anglia under John Litster were crushed by the militant bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, on about June 25.

    The rebellion lasted less than a month and failed completely as a social revolution. King Richard’s promises at Mile End and Smithfield were promptly forgotten, and manorial discontent continued to find expression in local riots. The rebellion succeeded, however, as a protest against the taxation of poorer classes insofar as it prevented further levying of the poll tax.

  10. Serenity says:

    Working hard for free if on benefits doing workfare for rich companies who pay no tax, the aristocrats made their money in the past from the slavery of black people or exploitation of other lands ie India, China (opium), Ireland et al. Nothing ever changes!
    Gandhi used non violence, the Ulster unionist brought Northern Ireland too a standstill in the 70’s and that’s with the army on the streets.

    1. Kelpiemare says:

      This govt rides roughshod over every parliamentary vote against them. They, who will probably sit in the upper house someday, callously ignore their nay votes. So, what is left to us, the plebs?
      If we are not listened to, thru our representatives in parliament, we have zero recourse but protest or riots. Personally, I believe in protest power. But, for this to be powerful in volume, every protest group, every unionist, every free-thinker and, yes, every politcian and every person who disagrees with these unfair, immoral and deadly policies has to make their voices heard. Demonstrate, but don’t set buildings on fire, don’t loot, as Will Tyler’s people party were told not to. Don’t alienate anyone other than the enemy…and that is what this nonelected govt, without mandate is, the enemy.

  11. Linda says:

    Politicians want more money, and the only solution they can come up with to the problems we face……is austerity for everyone else. Except of course for the rich, who will pay less tax.

  12. Thomas says:

    If Mubarak could be slung out of power, surely this government could as well? The MPs are increasing their own pay whilst cutting everyone elses. I have been left alone so far, but it could be only a matter of time before Atos makes me totally dependent on my savings.

    1. sacrafice says:

      They slung Mubarak out by fighting the police, the government terror gangs, snippers and men attaching them from Camels, many civilians died are the British people willing to make this sacrifice ?

  13. Marion Fallon says:

    Lets face it, most of us could probabaly imagine what it would be like to have plenty of money, not to have to think about what you were buying for your weekly food shop? It might seem odd at first, if you’ve been used to all your life having to count every penny, worry of you lose or now, “take a job”! etc. But you can bet your last pound in your wallet or purse the Camerons, Osborns and all the rest of privileged crowd could not ever, ever imagine what it’s like to be down where we are and that’s why they treat us all with utter contempt, they expect/presume that whoever isn’t born with a silver spoon and or privilege, should be “able to pull themselves up by their boot straps/work harder” etc., etc., and they too could be where they are. We all know this is absolute nonsense/right wing properganda, but we must always think this is where they come from and you can’t fight this “fairly”(unfortunate word to use I know currently, been devalued somewhat?)

  14. Jim Edge says:

    The big problem within the protest is to keep it orderly. Making sure it is not turned into an orgy of looting and unacceptable behavior, I believe that is one of the reasons we are reluctant to get involved because the ruling class would immediately point to the minority and with a very broad brush tar every one as a bad lot and the much needed argument would be in tatters..

  15. alan says:

    22,000 pay rise for mps equals 3000 jsa sanctions. 600mpsx22.000pounds each how many sick will be forced to work, help me with the maths

  16. jay says:

    A cool 13 million and 200 thousand pounds.

    Those that were on Incapacity Benefit and appealing against their WCA result will be getting £30 a week less on the ESA appeal rate.

    So by getting 44o,000 sick and disabled onto the appeal rate would pay for the rise you mention.

    Or sanction 18,591 off JSA for a year.

  17. jay says:

    the sick and disabled figure should be 8,461 on the appeal rate for a year,
    forgot to multiply the £30 by 52 weeks.

  18. Boadacia! says:

    Another example of how they can laugh at all of us!

    We all know this is nothing to do with ‘fair’ or even tightening of what the public are indoctrinated to believe ‘generous’ welfare laws, but a complete annihilation of any help whatsoever, even if we are on death-row.

    Take your cases to your MP’s surgeries and show them the contents of your colostomy bags, up real close! Make them FEEL your pain! Use the much overstretched CAB’s and all other welfare organisations excellent aid, and publicise everything you can! Let them suffer our wrath until we have political leaders with principles come crawling out of hiding!

  19. alan says:

    i had a dream that atos took over the doctors/and chemists, hospitals, dwp. it was worrying, is this our new shangrala quietly taking over, maybe atos could run the house of commons. any thing that involves public money as to go through atos first. nightmare

  20. Humanity2012 says:

    No Way Increase in MPS Salary

    Diabolical Wrecked Public Services and Wasted Billions upon Nuclear Weapons
    the War in Afghanistan and the EU Monstrosity

    1. Kelpiemare says:

      IF right-wing Tories get their wish and UK splits from EU, er are going to be one helluva mess. There are human rights laws, worker protection laws, civil and criminal laws all tied in with European Union law. As our representatives, Parliament accepted those laws. Approx 50%of our exports head into Europe.
      IF they succeed, can u imagine the treatment that would be heading our way? Human rights would be abolished. Workers, don’t like their face? Sack them…take on a workfare victim. Think long and hard before you tick ‘yes’ to a split.

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