Posted by Tania Kindersley.
WARNING: stupidly long post.
Oh yes, it is still conference season. I lulled you into a false sense of security yesterday with a little poem to equine magnificence, but today we are back to the coalface. It shall be a psephological festival from now on. I can hear the sounds of delight, coming at me through the ether.
I could have put this post in the category of Things I Do Not Understand. The talk is all of removing child benefit for higher rate tax payers, in order to deal with some of the deficit. (For those of you who do not wallow in British politics: every parent in this country gets an average of £850 for each child, every year, from the state. The Coalition is going to stop giving this to people who earn over £43,000, from 2013.) This seems to me eminently sensible. The government is asking the top 15% of earners to sacrifice around £50 a week for the greater good.
To a single mother on the minimum wage, £50 is a huge deal; it is the difference between paying the gas bill and buying food. To an old lady, living on the state pension, it may literally be a matter of life or death. I read yesterday that TWENTY THOUSAND old people die each winter, from the cold. I apologise for intemperate use of caps and italics, but this is so shocking that it should be on billboards all over the nation. It's not just old gents, some of whom probably fought in the war and saved us from fascism, sitting, shivering, in a freezing room. It is twenty thousand humans dying avoidable deaths. It is seven 9/11s, every year, in the fourth richest economy in the world. I like to think we live in a civilised country; there is nothing civilised about that.
Yet the instant media narrative is that the removal of child benefit is the real scandal. There are two arguments here that I do not understand. The one coming from the Left is that benefits must be universal, otherwise, for some reason no one can quite explain, the whole thing breaks down. Everyone, apparently, must have a stake in the state. This assumes something very nasty about human nature; that people will not contribute to the national coffers unless they get something concrete back. I think this is nonsense. I chose, a long time ago, not to have children. I am self-employed, so I will not get a state pension. As a result, the only tangible personal benefit I get from the taxes I pay is the use of the public library system. I admit that my local library is a thing of such wonder and beauty, and the librarians there so brilliant at tracking down obscure titles, that it is almost worth my entire contribution. However, it has never occurred to me that since I do not get tax credits or child trust funds the whole system is not worth the candle. I pay taxes willingly, because I want to live in a country where those who had bloody childhoods, or suffered illness or accident, or fell on hard times are not forgotten. I don't want to go all biblical on your ass, but it seems to me that the Good Life is only possible if we care for the least among us.
The second argument, coming from the Right, is almost more incomprehensible. It goes: middle class people tend to be Tory voters; if the government rudely removes their benefits, then they will go and vote for someone else. There is so much wrong with this I hardly know where to start. First of all, this is not the middle class. It is people who earn twenty thousand pounds more than the average wage. It is not fifty percent of the population, it is fifteen percent. Second of all, I do not believe that people just vote on their most narrow self-interest. I have spent my whole life voting for the party that taxes me more than the other party. I voted because I believed in its ideas for society as a whole. (Unfortunately, lately those ideas exploded in a holy mess, which makes me baffled and sad.) Third of all, might it not be the case that those who have had greater advantages in life could feel proud that by making a small sacrifice they can help get us out of the black hole into which we have fallen? Where is our bloody Dunkirk spirit?
Most of all, I do not understand why benefits are considered the benchmark of us all being in it together. Taxes tie us together because they pay for hospitals to care for our sick, schools for our young, roads for our motorists, police to keep us safe, the army to fight our wars, the secret service to confound terrorist plots. There are smaller, less noticed things: free admission to museums, subsidies for the arts, advice for small businesses, even the odd public monument. All of those are the increments of which society is made.
I could get all bolshie at this stage and point out that those complaining about child benefit never stop to give a second thought to those of us non-breeders who subsidise their decision to procreate. (See how pompous I can be when I try?) But I know someone has to make the next generation, so that I can have young people to amuse me when I am old. Those children will make the next breakthroughs in technology and science; they are the poets and playwrights and plumbers of the future. On the other hand, having children is a delightful choice, not a human right. (Did I just get a little controversial?) You could say, if you were being contrarian, that the idea of the state paying people to breed carries the tiniest whiff of North Korea. The Dear Leader says you shall go forth and reproduce. The Right, which hates government interference in our lives, should consider that, when it is complaining about the middle class having its benefits taken away.
I don't know. Usually, when a policy draws complaint from both sides of the ideological spectrum, I, as an old centrist liberal, have the small suspicion that it is probably correct. On the other hand, since I spend my whole life seeing both sides of the argument, I also carry the sinking fear that it is I who am wrong. This is why I occasionally feel a little cranky in the morning.
Pictures of the day:
A kind reader rashly left a comment saying she was missing the dogs. Fatal. As it turns out, I have a little shaggy dog story for you. You know what a concerned citizen I am, so in the spirit of civic duty and keeping the stuttering economy going, I recently bought a splendid new cushion from the splendid Mr John Lewis. The duchess took one look at it and claimed it for her own:
It is mine, mine, I tell you.
Which left the poor pigeon feeling as if her child benefit had just been cut:
See the terrible plaintive gaze at having to lay her head on the old cushion?
Memo to self: must, must, must stop with the anthropomorphising.
A little autumn colour to finish:
PS. Just in case I sound too worthy for my shirt, you could argue that a happiness to contribute towards society through tax is a matter of naked self-interest. It is why I do not understand tax dodgers. Sure, you get to keep more money, but you risk living in a society filled with feral children who cannot read, and in the end you have to go and live in a gated community and you spend your entire time worrying about crime and social disorder, which turns you into a hideous bore so you fetch up with no friends and only your butler to talk to. I admit butlers are usually marvellous fellows, but even so, it does limit your horizons. It's no coincidence that the Scandinavians always top the list of national well-being, year after year after year.
I really am stopping now. Tomorrow: a haiku.