The Mobile Phone; The Ultimate Treasure?
October 4, 2015
by Martin Odoni
One of the worst things a person can be accused of at the moment appears to be a ‘deficit-denier’, as apparently it is irresponsible to think it okay when a Government spends more than it takes in in taxes – even though in fact it is and holding that view is not the same as ‘denying’ that there is a deficit.
I am far more irritated by poverty-deniers. For one reason, they genuinely do deny that the problem of poverty exists when it plainly does. But for another, the specious reasons they come up with to support their view are so shallow that it should hardly be necessary to debunk them.
Now Lord Alan Sugar is the one having a go. He insists that there is no such thing as poverty in the UK, through his shrewd, scientific, in-depth analysis and canny powers of deductive reasoning. Which is to say, he thinks that everybody owns a mobile phone, therefore everybody must be quite well-off.
Now, it is hard for me to establish whether anyone has bothered to tell Lord Sugar yet, but I feel it my duty to point out that the year 1997 ended quite some time ago. Whether or not we really believe that everybody owns a mobile phone – of course it is not true anyway – Sugar’s reasoning is like assuming someone must be happy just because they are capable of smiling. A mobile phone probably was a bit of a status symbol for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these days they really do not cost that much at all. Many handsets can be purchased for about ten pounds, and even paying for credit is not that big a deal, given most mobile networks offer lo-cost calls and texting packages.
Quite simply, possessing a mobile phone in the year 2015 is not really the evidence of luxury and opulence that many poverty-deniers seem to imagine it is.
In a sense, Sugar’s words can be seen as correct, but not in the way he seems to mean. By and large, absolute poverty of the type that is commonplace in parts of Africa, Asia and South America, clearly does not exist in Britain. Parts of the improvement in the average Briton’s condition over the last two hundred years come from simple advancements in technology, many of which result in goods that, by nature, are held collectively. For instance, when electric street-lighting was first introduced in the late nineteenth century, it was not possible for the rich to light the streets to keep themselves safe at night, while simultaneously leaving them dark for everybody else. Tarmacked roads, also, remain tarmacked no matter who is driving or walking on them, irrespective of their relative wealth.
Some parts of the world however have still not had an industrial revolution even to bring their people’s condition up to the level of a Briton in the slums of Whitechapel in the 1880’s. Countries with threadbare infrastructure, perhaps torn apart by warfare, constant food shortages, and the like. The sort of poverty these parts of the world are familiar with is plainly in a different world from the sorts of poverty we have in Britain, and we should not overlook that.
But this does not really tally with Sugar’s arguments at all. He is simply saying that because someone owns something nice, anything at all, they cannot be poor, and therefore they deserve no sympathy or support. This is like saying that when a soldier owns any weapon at all, even if it is just a bow-and-arrow, he must stand and fight, even when he is facing a convoy of armoured tanks. (And is it not strange in this light how we never heard him protesting earlier this year when MPs were complaining about how hard it is for them to get by on sixty-thousand pound salaries? Sixty thousand pounds is hardship, but a mobile phone is opulence?)
We do have poverty. As a member of the House Of Lords, Sugar should be aware of the Government figures from June this year that 2.3 million children in the UK are living in relative poverty. Even with the Government’s attempts to massage the stats by altering the definition of poverty, the numbers are bewilderingly high.
Just because we do not have absolute poverty, that is no reason to assume that the UK therefore has no poverty, or that the comparatively mild poverty of the UK is acceptable and no attempt should be made to tackle it. As one of the richest countries in the world over the last three hundred years, the UK has long-since run out of excuses for insisting that it does not have enough to go around. And just because a particular problem is not the worst problem in the world, that is not a very good reason to leave it unsolved.
Lord Sugar might be able to point to his ability to emerge from boyhood poverty to say anyone can make it if they try, but that very same ‘we-do-not-have-enough-to-go-around’ mentality is precisely what gets in the way of other people duplicating his rise. When the system is set so that wealth is concentrated in few hands, and that there is not enough for everyone else to be well-off, Sugar’s individual rise will mean that the door was closed on dozens of others. It is the nature of any pyramidal social structure that some people will not make it, no matter how hard they try, because they structure does not have space for them higher up. Owning a mobile phone in the days of their ubiquity will not be much of a consolation prize, and having to see Alan Sugar go on television and tell them that they are not poor while he gets hundreds of pounds every day just for turning up at the House Of Lords, will probably make them slightly nauseous.
It is true what they say, people. Too much Sugar makes you sick.