Posted: 2021-04-21

Inequalities of wealth and power make a nonsense of the principle of equality before the law



ARTICLE 7 of the UN’s  Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”. The implication is that everyone should be treated equally under the law regardless of race, gender, religion, belief, disability, and so on. In modern times, we have seen groups representing people with these characteristics campaign for this equality, with some measure of success, though in most cases the battle is far from won.


And yet there are two other areas where massive inequalities remain and seem to be on the increase. And these areas affect the extent of the other inequalities listed above. Yet we do nothing to reduce them. On the contrary, we have actually made them stronger, even while also expressing anger when individual cases receive publicity. These are the inequalities of wealth and power.


In many countries the rich are becoming richer, thanks in no small part to tax cuts introduced by elected  governments. Take the UK. In the 1970s the basic income tax rate was 33% and the top rate was 83%. Today the basic rate is 20% and the top rate is 40%. In Ireland the rates are the same, having been 35% and 65% as recently as 1985.  As for corporation tax, it has fallen in both countries: 19% in the UK and 12.5% in Ireland. Thus the rich in both personal and corporate terms keep more of their income after tax than they did 50 years ago.


They may then hire clever lawyers or find tax havens so that they pay even less to the state than their income warrants.  Greed drives them to assume that, as Leona Helmsley said, “only the little people pay taxes”. It is at least good to hear that President Biden wants to see a minimum universal corporation tax rate.


As far as power is concerned, breaches of the rules, both legal and ethical, are becoming ever more brazen. The American government commits an extra-judicial killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden and tortures prisoners in Guantanamo. It also invades other countries with impunity in defiance of international law. The then President Trump incites a mob attack on Congress and goes unpunished. The Saudi government commits a brutal extra-judicial killing of a dissident journalist in a Turkish consulate and the international ‘community’ imposes no punishment. 


The UK government is ruled by the Supreme Court to have illegally dissolved Parliament in 2019, yet there are no sanctions. Instead it gets re-elected. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis announces that a new bill to amend the UK’s Brexit deal will ‘break international law’. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s ex-chief adviser, breaks Covid guidelines by travelling hundreds of miles and going on a trip to ‘test his eyesight’ and is not punished. 

Nearer home, Sinn Féin breaks Covid rules by staging not one but two funerals of a convicted ex-IRA gunman attended by thousands and takes over Belfast’s only crematorium for an afternoon, depriving 8 other families of its use, yet the Public Prosecution Service decides there is not enough evidence to charge 24 Sinn Féin MLAs for this despicable breach of the guidelines. 


As with the rich, the powerful are beginning to think that they are subject to different rules from the rest of the population. And of course when this power is combined with wealth or the prospect of wealth, the sense of entitlement increases. In the UK, top politicians are not particularly well paid. But it is the favours they dispense, such as knighthoods for chums and rich supporters, and what happens afterwards that are ethically dubious. Ex-Prime Ministers of Britain from Blair to Cameron seem to think that they deserve their millions, whether from extravagant public speaking fees or secret lobbying. It is a system of sleaze and the UK suffers badly from it.


The question has to be asked: what ethical code do the rich and powerful follow? Are the common good, the pursuit of justice, human rights and peace the guiding principles? Alas, it seems not. It does appear that morality, integrity and decency are hypocritical veneers behind which lie self-interest, whether on behalf of the individual or the country. And here is where much of the public get what they deserve. If you want your nation to put itself first, then you will vote for governments that sell arms to dictators who kill journalists and use the weapons to slaughter women and children  – and look forward to the oil and investments as your reward.


Brian McClinton, April 2021