Social Exclusion at the Top

Ant McPartlin’s drink driving conviction and record £86,000 fine in Monday gives me an excuse to finally publish a post that has been sitting in blog purgatory for eight years.

Ant’s car crash is the latest example of fabulously wealthy TV and sports stars behaving badly in vehicles. Yaya Touré was handed a record-at-the-time £54,000 fine for drink-driving in 2016. Further back in time, we may recall the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was clocked doing 104mph in his Lamborghini, and John Terry has a penchant for parking in disabled bays.

These incidents might be an example of ‘social exclusion at the top’, a concept noted by Anthony Giddens and my erstwhile colleague Simon Griffiths in their 2006 book Sociology.

Yet not all cases of exclusion occur among those who are disadvantaged at the bottom of society. In recent years, new dynamics of ‘social exclusion at the top’ have been emerging. By this, it is meant that a minority of individuals at the very top of society can ‘opt out’ of participation in mainstream institutions by merit of their affluence, influence and connections.

Exclusion at the top can take a number of forms. The wealthy might retreat fully from the realm of public education and healthcare services, preferring to pay for private services and attention. Affluent residential communities are increasingly closed off from the rest of society — the so-called ‘gated communities’ located behind tall walls and security checkpoints. Tax payments and financial obligations can be drastically reduced through careful management and the help of private financial planners. Particularly in the United States, active political participation among the elite is often replaced by large donations to political candidates who are seen to represent their interests. In a number of ways, the very wealthy are able to escape from their social and financial responsibilities into a closed, private realm largely separate from the rest of society. Just as social exclusion at the ‘bottom’ undermines social solidarity and cohesion, exclusion at the ‘top’ is similarly detrimental to an integrated society.

Traffic incidents like those listed above highlight how this exclusion is not just about financial and social obligations, but about whether the wealthy even need to heed the law. A £400 fine for a parking violation is no deterrent. Nor is a driving ban a particular inconvenience for someone who could earn a chauffeur’s annual salary in a day.

For John Terry, parking in a disabled bay is the economically rational choice for someone of his vast wealth: it costs him more than £60 to drive around the town centre for 15 minutes to find a space, so he may as well park where it’s most convenient and pay the minuscule penalty.

What is noteworthy about the Ant McPartlin fine is that it was related to his salary. Such fines are now ‘progressive’ like the tax system. Before, the drink driving fines were capped at £5,000. Now they can be set at 150% of a week’s earnings.

This is to be applauded, but we should remember that the ‘sting’ of a week-and-a-half-wages fine affects the very wealthy quite differently to the very poor. For McPartlin, the record fine will not affect the mortgage, the weekly food shop or whether his wife can put fuel in the car (one assumes Ant is not going to be driving himself for a while). For someone on a low wage, a fine at the same proportion could mean hunger, overdrafts, payday loans and rent arrears all of which have longer term consequences.

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