DON’T FEAR A RETURN TO VICTORIAN ENGLAND

BRITAIN is heading for levels of inequality that were “evident in Victorian England”, the High Pay Commission has concluded. Yet the data this is based on does not go back to Victorian times. The earliest year on record is 1913, a dozen years after Victoria died. So the High Pay Commission has estimated where this data may have been during the former Queen’s life. It has also estimated where it might be in the near future, on the assumption that recent trends will continue if “unchecked”. In 1911 the top 0.1 per cent of people had an 11 per cent share of income -- nearly double the most recent equivalent measurement (six per cent, in 2007).

The report’s other headline figures concern top pay at banks such as Barclays and BP. The lead exec’s pay at Barclays is up 4,899 per cent since 1979, a figure that led many news stories yesterday. Yet buried on page 73 the Commission admits that the “structure of the companies themselves will have changed quite dramatically over the three decades in question”. Citing Lloyds, it also admits that the subsequent Big Bang allowed firms “to swell into the global investment giant(s)” they are today. Comparing today’s multinational megaliths with the relatively modest, traditional firms of the late 1970s is a case of apples and oranges -- even if it made for good headlines.