“I don’t judge people by their bank accounts…”
Personal wealth has never prevented anyone from getting the keys to 10 Downing Street. Britain has been served by just a few prime ministers of modest means; Callaghan the son of a war widow, for example, Thatcher the grocer’s daughter, or Heath the carpenter’s son. By and large though, number 10 has spent its existence much like any other substantial London property – comfortably out of reach to the average earner.
Nevertheless, Radio 4’s Justin Webb perpetuated the myth of meritocracy recently, when asking Rishi Sunak whether he is “too rich to be Prime Minister in these times.” Webb can be forgiven for asking a question so at odds with history; he spoke to a popular assumption about politicians, namely that they are disproportionately affluent, out of touch with the lives of ordinary folk, and thus incapable of governing in their interests.
Sunak, of course, is disproportionately wealthy even for an MP, with the Sunday Times Rich List estimating his and his wife’s personal fortune at £730mn. During a cost of living crisis, in which the nation’s premier personal finance expert is already warning of the need for ‘warm banks,’ to prevent people freezing to death in their own homes, even British people accustomed to being governed by the wealthy could be forgiven baulking at taking orders from a man richer than the Queen.
Mr Sunak’s answer to Webb’s question was telling –
“I don’t judge people by their bank accounts. I judge them by their character and I think people can judge me by my actions.”
Cynically draped in the language of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Sunak made a false dichotomy between bank accounts on one hand, and character on another. As he is running to become the country’s first British Asian prime minister, there is a certain wisdom in him quoting the world’s most famous civil rights leader (albeit Dr King himself was deeply sceptical of capitalism). To suggest, though, that there is no link between the contents of one’s bank account and the contents of one’s character is to be ignorant of human nature.
A strain on our character
One’s personal finances are often the single greatest strain on character that any of us will face.
During straitened times, even the relatively comfortably off can feel profound anxiety about money; the kind of sleep-stealing, thought-derailing panic that impairs thinking and invites bad decisions. As mental health charity Mind so neatly summarises, “poor mental health can make earning and managing money harder. And worrying about money can make your mental health worse.”
This might take the form of quietly binning the credit card bill in the misguided hope it goes away, or indulging in a spending spree to gain the temporary relief of an endorphin rush. It’s not called “retail therapy” for nothing.
Harrowing though the money worries of the middle class can be, these are as nothing compared to the pressures faced by people already living in poverty.
“You’re not you when you’re hungry”
A Snickers ad campaign once reminded us all that “you’re not you when you’re hungry,” speaking to a universally accepted truth that the stress of even a temporary, mid-afternoon hunger can make us angry or irrational. Well, the Trussell Trust gave out 2.1m food parcels in the year 2021-2022.
In effect, millions of people needed not an afternoon snack, but three days of meals in order to prevent starvation. This is part of a sustained, often inescapable reality in which the continuity of one’s food supply can’t be relied upon. Our country currently forces millions of people to exist in a state of perpetual anxiety, not just about money, but about the very essentials for which it is needed; food and fuel.
It is insulting to the intelligence to pretend this isn’t an immense strain on character. Indeed, a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that “inequalities in wealth are strongly associated with psychological distress, over and above other confounding demographic variables and baseline health status.” When you’re in poverty, psychological stress bears down on you like a 1,000-tonne weight, and the changes to your character can become permanent. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported as long ago as 2015, “poverty increases the risk of mental illnesses,” and – to put no finer point on it –
“children raised in environments of low socio-economic status show consistent reductions in cognitive performance across many areas, particularly language function and cognitive control (attention, planning, decision-making).”
Poverty shapes who you are
In short, the stress associated with poverty can shape who you are, and at a quite fundamental level. There is a direct link between the content of one’s bank account and the content of one’s character.
Though he may have couched it in the language of civil rights, Sunak was merely confirming his own blissful ignorance. As a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now campaigning to lead the country, he doesn’t have the moral licence to demonstrate such complete blindness to the real-world consequences of his decisions.
The consequences of Sunak’s ignorance should be remembered as he closes out the final weeks of his ill-starred campaign. Sensing he is no match for Liz Truss’s fantasy-peddling extremism, Sunak has cultivated an image of himself as the “grown-up” in the race, who is not afraid to speak the language of hard choices.
We have heard the language of “hard choices” and “tough decisions” a lot in the last twelve years of Conservative government. Sunak’s predecessor, George Osborne, liked to talk in this manner; it was a useful but deeply duplicitous way of framing Tory austerity. That austerity, of course, mounted a sustained attack on people’s bank accounts – and thus their characters – as misplaced punishment for the incompetence of the banking sector. This agenda was reliably supported by Rishi Sunak, a man detached from consequences and, as we now see, unaware even of their existence.
In a nutshell, Mr Sunak has consistently voted to penalise people he doesn’t know, in ways he doesn’t understand, living in parallel worlds that he’ll never visit. His is the record of a man cosseted into obliviousness.
Though we may wish it were otherwise, our access to money profoundly shapes who we are, and if Sunak doesn’t get that, he’s got no better grip on reality than Truss.
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