We had time to kill in London City Airport before our flight back to Edinburgh. We sat down in the restaurant for something to eat. I asked the waitress for a glass of white wine and she hesitated.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Well, it’s just that it’s going to cost you £16.50.”
“For a glass of ordinary Sauvignon Blanc?” I said.
Round about me, Edinburgh bankers were knocking the stuff back like there was no tomorrow. I checked out salary levels after that.
The serving staff and the chefs in the kitchen were all on the minimum wage, just £6.50 an hour. The women who clean the airport toilets got the same. Each one of them would have to work for nearly two-and-a-half hours to earn enough money to buy a glass of wine in the airport they look after.
That’s the free market economy for you right there. And Nicola Sturgeon gets pelters for suggesting that there needs to be better distribution of wealth and a bit more social justice in our country?
There is one obvious solution to social and economic inequality. But it’s such a dirty word now that most of our politicians are too scared to say it. Tax. Not the poll tax. Not the bedroom tax. I’m talking about income tax. What is so unreasonable about putting up income tax to pay for better services, better schools and better hospitals?
When nurses start working for the NHS they get £7.92 an hour (unless you’re a nurse in a private hospital where the patients can pay to jump the queue. Nurses there get £15.50 an hour).
Chat to any of the nursing staff in the Royal Infirmary. You’ve all met them, these amazing people who look after our mums, dads, sisters, brothers, children and friends. They are run off their feet. They are paid a pittance. We need higher tax revenues to recruit more of them and pay them what they are worth.
The argument against imposing higher income tax on the people who earn the most goes like this: they are our wonderful wealth creators, they will leave our country if we tax them fairly and their wealth won’t “trickle down” to the poorest in society.
I have a suggestion for you people: pack up and leave now. Because if you’re merrily shelling out £16.50 for glasses of Sauvignon Blanc served to you by someone who earns £6.50 an hour, then the only place your wealth is “trickling down” is your own throat.
The devil’s apprentice
A woman I refuse to name just compared Libyan war refugees to “cockroaches”, said she didn’t care if they drowned, even the babies, and suggested boring holes in their boats. Her words were published in full in the Sun. Is that any less an incitement to racial hatred than the Hutus who called the Tutsis “cockroaches” on air, provoking genocide? Why hasn’t she been arrested?
Who’d live in a house like this?
I was lucky enough to get a tour of 10 Downing Street last week. The politicians were all scurrying round the country kissing babies so I didn’t bump into any of them.
The first person I met inside wasn’t even a person. It was Chief Mouser Larry, the Downing Street cat. He likes to get a wee look at you when you arrive but after that he pays no attention and wanders at will through the 100-roomed, four-storey townhouse.
Larry has special privileges; he’s the only one who’s allowed to sit in Winston Churchill’s brown leather chair. Scratches in the leather are testament to the fact that Larry’s flexed his claws there.
We are shown downstairs to the basement, past black and white framed photographs of every prime minister who has ever lived in Number 10, starting with the first First Lord of the Treasury Sir Robert Walpole.
Taking up most of the space down there is a magnificent globe of the world, 3ft high and 4ft across. It was a gift to Margaret Thatcher from the president of France, Francois Mitterand. She fell in love with it immediately and was ready to install it on the ground floor when she gave it a quick spin. Her finger landed on the Falkland Islands. She noticed they were described on the globe as Las Malvinas. One irritable phonecall later and the globe was banished to the basement where it has remained ever since.
We are led out into the garden. A gardener is mowing the lawn and blue tits are flitting from trees to feeders hanging round a bird table. A magnolia tree is in full bloom. The sun is warm on our faces but we get goose bumps as our guide points out shrapnel holes in the bricks around the windows of the Cabinet Room from the IRA’s failed mortar attack.
The Cabinet was meeting that morning to discuss the first Gulf War. John Major had just uttered the word “bombs” when several 4.5ft long mortar shells were fired from a Transit van with the roof cut out, parked 200ft away in Whitehall. The terrorists had picked out their firing position the night before and marked it carefully. Snow fell that night and covered up the marks. Two shells landed in the garden. If the van had parked a matter of inches to the right they would have exploded in the Cabinet Room. Major insisted the holes in the wall should be left there as a permanent reminder of the fragility of democracy.
In the Cabinet Room itself, on a rectangle of green baize, is a ceremonial sword gifted by the ruler of a rich Middle East country. The handle is inlaid with ivory which is a forbidden export. Refusing the gift would have been regarded as such an insult that trade relations would have suffered. To get round this, the sword is never touched or even cleaned. As long as it rests on its green baize rectangle it is technically still “in Customs”.
On the upper floors are state rooms, an office and a banqueting room. I’m encouraged to rest my bum on the same armchair where Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and George Clooney rested theirs. Above the door to one state room is a pink neon sign that says “More Passion”. It’s a piece by Tracy Emin,
installed by David Cameron.
Every prime minister likes to add their own little twist to the place. High up among the gold plaster cornicing Margaret Thatcher was so keen on, you can just about make out a tiny peasant with a load of stiff straw on his back. It’s a thatcher, Maggie’s little joke. On the fretwork of wooden flowers that trim the book cabinets in the office, if you’ve eyes like a hawk, you can find four little bees carved out of wood. They are Blair’s Bs. Two for his kids and one each for himself and Cherie.
Outside, we take a few selfies with the world’s most famous door in the background. We discuss the election and wonder who the house’s next occupants will be. Whoever they are, one thing is for sure: Larry the cat won’t give a stuff about them.