While the rumble of popular revolt echoed all the way from west London at the weekend, the British establishment reinforced its fragile defences in the way it knows best – by dishing out gongs. In the face of intense public anger at the treatment of the refugees from Grenfell Tower, the publication of the honours list massaged a thousand egos. There was no suggestion that this ludicrous ritual should be postponed in deference to the 'sombre national mood' identified by the monarch. It was her name on the list, after all.
Glasgow's self-styled 'hairy rebel' admitted to feeling 'a little embarrassed' by his knighthood, as well he might, while others improbably claimed to be 'humbled'. But for genuine humility, there was no need to look further than the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. By Saturday it was clear that the survivors had not only been denied a visit from the prime minister but would have to wait weeks to be rehoused in a city bristling with empty properties. That is truly what it means to be humbled.
Kensingston, of all places, recently elected a Labour MP. The new member, Emma Dent Coad, graphically evoked the predicament of the people 'socially' housed in her constituency: their homes growing toxic black mould, their children squeezed on mattresses in tiny bedrooms, malnutrition and asthma rife, complaints ignored, indifference on the part of the borough's disgraceful (and disgraced) Tory majority, a suspicion that the council may have been pursuing a covert policy of social cleansing.
The personal testimonies were shocking. When one of the Grenfell tenants repeatedly raised concerns about fire safety, the council intimidated him with threats of legal action on the all too familiar ground that he was being 'vexatious' (the ultimate cop-out of officialdom). When another, a gifted young artist, cleared her name after being wrongfully arrested, the police failed to return the mobile phone they had confiscated and she was still without it on the night she burned to death.
In such ways we have come to know a little more about the two Britains that co-exist on this small island. We have been on a crash course in human cruelty, institutional cynicism and corporate greed. But we can't pretend to be surprised. In 2009, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their seminal text on inequality, 'The Spirit Level', pointed out that of the world's developed nations Britain was the worst in which to bring up a child. They argued that the relationship between inequality and poor health was too strong to be attributable to chance. And they predicted that the yawning gap between the poorest and richest would have dire social consequences.
Some critics thought they were painting too bleak a picture and had exaggerated the effects of income disparity. Tony Blair said he couldn't care less what David Beckham earned. Soon Tony Blair couldn't care less what Tony Blair earned. Successive governments continued to ignore the warnings, and the gulf between top and bottom has grown ever larger. In many private sector organisations, it is grotesque. What should have concerned us more, if only because it could have been regulated by good governance, was the rampant inflation of top management salaries in institutions supposedly serving the public good, including and especially the NHS and the higher education sector.
Junior members of the academic and support staff at Glasgow University earn £15,422 a year – an hourly rate of £8.45, only 95p above the national minimum wage – while the principal, Anton Muscatelli, is paid £322,000 – a basic of £276,000 plus a pension contribution of £46,000. The top-to-bottom difference at this establishment is thus, deplorably and inexcusably, at least 21 to 1 and almost certainly worse (for I have no idea what Glasgow University pays its cleaners).
Yet, it is not enough that Professor Muscatelli should be overpaid for what he does. He must also be honoured for it. His knighthood in the birthday list would have been recommended by the Scottish government. Professor Muscatelli – Sir Anton as we must learn to call him – is one of Ms Sturgeon's advisers, a valued member of her court. No doubt recognition of his service to Scottish public life was deemed overdue.
But the timing was bad. Awful, really. At the end of a week in which the contrast between the two Britains had been laid bare in the most shaming fashion, it made the principal of Glasgow University a legitimate object of curiosity. There have been occasional stories in the press about his preference for business class and first-class air travel, but the small print of his expenses claims reveals rather more of interest – as I discovered from a random survey of the professor's sundries in the first quarter of last year.
For attending a Burns Supper in London in January, he claimed £40 to cover the cost of extra baggage. Back in London for a seminar of some kind, he claimed £4.95 for 'subsistence' at the Cafe Nero in City Airport before dashing back to Edinburgh for a 'First Minister Event'. During his next trip to London he returned to the same Cafe Nero, but on this occasion incurred expenses of only £4.85, a saving of 10p. After a visit to New York later in the quarter he billed his employer for £7.07 and £6.85 to cover 'refreshments' and 'subsistence' at the Eataly Gran Bar. For a London meeting a week later, his expenses included £8.98 for 'refreshments' at Starbucks in Islington High Street.
All these minor outgoings in the discharge of the principal's duties were meticulously accounted for. If Professor Muscatelli, as he then was, wished to reclaim them, he was entitled to do so. It could be argued that, when you are earning only £322,000 a year, it is important to look after the pennies – as the poor of Kensington, who earn nothing or next to nothing, must do every day of their wretched lives. Let us be clear: Scotland's newest knight of the realm (alongside the hairy rebel) has done nothing wrong. Yet, in the
unravelling narrative of the two Britains, Sir Anton – with his exorbitant salary, his enormous pension, his first-class travel and his knighthood – suddenly feels like part of the problem.
Click here for 'My life in a London tower block' by Barbara Millar