The hard-working bloke in his burned-out shop is the true symbol for our times
What horrors. As I write, the FTSE 100 index has dived below 5,000 for the first time since last July, the mood of the London investment community darkened by the sense that civilisation is breaking down. There’s no glimmer of goodness or optimism in the morning’s news: everything — not only the economic outlook but also human nature itself — looks nastier and more incorrigible than it did a fortnight ago.
But the combination of mass criminal damage with the destruction of many months’ gains in investment values (unless you’re a gold bug or a holder of Swiss franc bonds) at least reminds us who it is that deserves a proper portion of sympathy. The shopkeeper picking disconsolately through the charred remains of a family business built up over decades of hard work and prudence is the true symbol of our times.
He stands for everyone who is a non-rioter and non-thief; for the citizen who pays his taxes on time and complies with every regulation; for the borrower who is not maxed out on his credit cards and never fails to meet his repayments; for the saver who thought he had put enough aside for a modestly comfortable old age; for the parent who aspires to pass on a steady business or a decent nest-egg to his offspring.
He’s not a greedy banker or an opportunist offshore investor. He doesn’t exploit the benefits system or abuse the police. He’s not a self-serving, truth-denying politician or an incompetent, overpaid public servant. He’s just a law-abiding middle-class bloke. He’s self-employed or owns a small business that provides half a dozen steady jobs — or he’s a middle manager in a larger business, in which case he hasn’t had a real pay rise for three years, his pension rights have shrunk and he’ll probably be redundant by Christmas. He and his hard-working wife — active volunteers in community life — are the backbone of British society. And right now, pretty well everything that contributes to their material wellbeing is in ruins.
Far too little has been said about the huge erosion of personal equity and self-sufficiency that is being caused by negative real returns on savings, falling house values, dismal stock markets, rampant inflation, squeezed pay and profits, and multiple tax grabs — the price being paid by the bloke-in-a-burned-out-shop for a crisis that is not in any sense of his own making.
He seems at least to have been spotted by George Osborne, writing in the Telegraph about the need for lower corporate taxes and less regulation. But you’ll have to go further, Chancellor, if you want to restore any sense of fairness to the Prime Minister’s slogan about us all being ‘in this together’. The 50p income tax rate must certainly go, and why not double the inheritance tax threshold while you’re at it? As for Vince Cable and his ‘mansion tax’, words fail me. I hope he gets reshuffled to the Home Office and put on front-line riot-control duty.
POSTCARD FROM FRANCE
‘France is rated Triple-A with a stable outlook’, said the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s on Monday, having shocked the financial world by downgrading the public debt of the United States to Double-A-plus last Friday. In such fearful markets, anything may have happened by this Friday, but for now — observed from my holiday hideaway in the Dordogne — the French have some justification for their highly developed sense of amour propre. Even their posturing little President looks statesmanlike by comparison with Barack Obama. And they can cast smug glances over the Channel, since their banlieues are relatively calm this summer while ours are being torn apart.
But what I admire most is the French sense of what really matters. Inflation in food and energy prices is painfully evident here, and there are other signs of the times — ‘Grève’ (strike) spray-painted on the walls of a school that has just been expensively modernised, protest banners covering the padlocked gates of a closed old people’s home — but on the whole, life follows its ancient rhythm. La Depèche du Midi gave passing mention to financial storms last week but made its banner headline ‘Wonderful summer for cèpes’. The pungent fungi are abundant and the local price is down from €15 a kilo to €8 — a rare example of a market fall that has been widely welcomed.
Then there’s the reporting of the DSK saga. Lawyers for Nafissatou Diallo, the New York chambermaid who has accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, last week appealed to Air France staff to substantiate an anonymous claim that only male stewards could be assigned to the first-class cabin when the frequent-flying former IMF chief and would-be socialist presidential candidate was aboard, their female colleagues having tired of fending off his wandering hands. French radio news bulletins presented this as a scurrilous American attack on the good name of Air France, while a representative of the CGT trade union federation urged stewardesses not to sully their own reputations by coming forward to confirm the story.
On the way south I stopped at St Valery en Caux, a little fishing port to the west of Dieppe. Here’s another glimpse of French resistance to conventional opinion: far more residents seem enraged by the installation of wind turbines along the clifftop than are upset by the near presence of the giant concrete box which contains the Paluel nuclear power station, scene in the past two years of several internal leaks and one serious fire.
Down on the beach, an oyster farmer tends his beds at flat-calm low tide — a lovely, painterly scene but here, too, all is not well. A deadly virus has wiped out half of France’s oysters this year, after a 38 per cent fall in production last year. It’s not difficult to make a connection between French oysters and high-living French socialists: François Mitterrand scoffed 30 Marennes oysters before tackling a brace of ortolans at his celebrated ‘last supper’. The oyster-killer virus is in fact a peculiarly aggressive strain of herpes — so perhaps divine retribution for the alleged misdeeds of DSK.