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Like many people, I’ve been mildly fascinated by last week’s events at Manchester United. For those of you who are totally detached from football, Wayne Rooney declared mid-week that he wanted to leave the club, claiming that it lacked the ambition and funds to compete at the highest level in the future. He then, at the end of the week and after much agonising in the press and the Man Utd boardroom and changing room, did a complete U-turn and signed a new 5-year contract which doubled his income to £180,000 a week.

We’ll never know whether this was an extraordinarily crude negotiation ploy to double his salary, naivety on Rooney’s part, or guile on the part of Sir Alex Ferguson the manager – or a mixture of the three. But whatever lies behind the scenes, what I find really interesting is the way in which the saga has been reported, and the apparent response from the Man Utd fans, because it speaks volumes about British attitudes to inequality and community.

The fact that a 25-year-old footballer will now earn the median UK annual income of around £25k every day for the next five years has attracted considerably less attention than the heartache the uncertainty has caused fans and the task Rooney now has of winning back their trust.

This is the week in which 500,000 public-sector job losses were announced; in which cuts in spending and public services have been vigorously denounced as regressive and defended just as strenuously as fair; in which Goldman Sachs felt obliged to cut its ‘compensation’ fund for employees but still offered an average of £236,000 per employee; and in which the Downing Street website published salary details for senior Whitehall civil servants in the name of transparency. Inequality and fairness are as high on the agenda as they have ever been. And yet the fact that a 25-year-old footballer will now earn the median UK annual income of around £25k every day for the next five years has attracted considerably less attention than the heartache the uncertainty has caused fans and the task Rooney now has of winning back their trust.

It seems likely to me that such gross inequality is seen as acceptable in Rooney’s case, but not in the case of bankers and public servants, because of the influence of community. Man Utd fans have a relationship with Rooney that, while not truly personal, is intense and two-way. They love what he does on the pitch, appreciate the effect that he has in cementing the community of fans, and at some level recognise that he makes their lives better. He's also 'one of us', and could be the boy from down the street.

The opposite is true of bankers and senior civil servants: despite the fact that they probably contribute more to this country, as far as the average person is concerned they are faceless, remote and disconnected from any aspect of community life. As a result, they are pilloried for having incomes which, while considerable, are a fraction of Rooney’s. (It will take Rooney a whole week to earn what the top civil servants take home in a year.)

My point in all this is that the context in which inequality manifests itself is all important.  Obvious inequality has been painted as a negative force, leading to increased stress, violence, health problems and other pathologies. But perhaps it can also be used ‘for good’. The RSA’s Connected Communities project has investigated community ties in New Cross Gate, a multiply-deprived area of South East London which borders the more affluent Telegraph Hill conservation area. There is considerable local inequality here, as I highlighted in a previous post on this blog, and little interaction between the two areas. But there is also potential for this inequality to be put to good use, if Telegraph Hill residents can be encouraged to engage with their neighbours in New Cross Gate and use their greater affluence, connections and capabilities to improve lives and community ties.

Inequality in the UK is not going to go away, but does it need to? The goals Wayne Rooney scores are more important to Man Utd fans than the fact that he earns so much more than them, and fans recognise that he wouldn’t be playing for them if he didn’t earn so much. Could the same be true in areas like New Cross Gate; could local inequality not only be overlooked, but also appreciated, if it is put to good use? And if this happens across the UK, in the context of the Big Society or otherwise, could greater engagement between rich and poor start to change the terms on which inequality is viewed?

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