Thursday, 21 October 2010

Universality, redux

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to do a nice soothing post about pea soup today, and give the politics a rest. However, the row over universal benefits is still rumbling on, and it is starting to make me crazy.

The reason I find it so fascinating is that it represents that kind of thinking where something is taken for granted as a Good, and even to question it makes one Bad.

Here is the premise: universal benefits, such as money for children, bus passes and winter fuel, which go to millionaires and the middle class and the poor alike, are an unqualified good. Why? Because they bind everyone into the system. And the reason that is a good thing is that otherwise welfare degenerates into a sad thing only for the indigent. A secondary ill is that recipients of welfare are stigmatised. The final nail in the argument is that Beverage said it must be thus, and Beverage was always right, as well as being an honourable and decent man.

This is the kind of argument that I once accepted without demur. It appealed to the old lefty in me. Yes, yes, Beverage said so, and we are all in it together. Hurrah.

But, once you have to think about it, because the money is running out, it seems not only an argument which should give way to pragmatism but which is actually incorrect on its face.

First, it says something very nasty about the middle classes. I've said this before, but I can't help repeating it, because it really bothers me. It says: the middle classes are so selfish and grasping and narcissistic that they will only support a welfare state which gives them fifty quid a week for their children. I think this is demonstrably not true. Not even the most heartless Home Counties plutocrat is calling for the dismantling of the entire benefit system. There might be a bit of squealing and squeaking and complaining, but the bourgeoisie is not about to tear down the walls of Jericho with its bare hands.

Second, it ignores all the other elements of universality beyond the cash in pocket elements of welfare. It writes off the health system, the public libraries, the roads, the police, the army and everything else into which our general national well-being is stitched.

Third, it makes a very weird practical assumption. The argument that if benefits are not universal they will become somehow bad, which the Shadow Chancellor insisted upon in an interview today, is really peculiar. What is going to happen? Is the government going to say: well, the middle classes are not getting any actual money, so we shall turn the whole system rotten? Are the affluent going to picket benefit offices? There is absolutely no logical reason that a welfare system which does not physically pay money to the better off should be intrinsically nasty, inefficient or third-rate.

Fourth, Beverage was a very great man. He did a very great thing. This does not mean that his words are set in stone. I expect even Gandhi or Nelson Mandela occasionally said things which were not quite correct. Some principles are set in stone. Do unto others is a pretty finite idea. Do not murder, steal or pinch other people's husbands all stand the test of time. Others may have to be adjusted to circumstance. This is not moral relativism; it is real life.

Fifth, I do not understand the stigma argument at all. Is someone who has sadly fallen on hard times going to refuse child benefit because hedge-fund managers no longer receive it? Are they going to feel like a second-class citizen because they get money for their children while the Duchess of Devonshire does not? It is a bizarre Alice in Wonderland conjecture. (There is an old self-help tradition in the British working class which does regard being on the social as a form of stigma, but this is as an objective thing rather than a relative one.)

Sixth, I think it removes equity. The new question on which every single discussion of this is begun is: what is fairness? This is asked in earnest, let's deconstruct the hell out of the thing tones. I think fairness, beyond its dictionary definition, means everyone getting a good shot, and one group of people not being penalised at the expense of another. It is treating all men and women as equals. (It is not fair, for example, that women may not be bishops or that the ladies of Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive.) It seems to me that, in straitened times, it is not fair that the richer get cash which could go to the poorer. I'm not going all Marxist on your ass, but sometimes from each according to his ability to each according to his needs is not such a mad idea.

If you cannot get enough of this argument, which I personally cannot, there was a very interesting Moral Maze on the subject last night. I disagreed with everyone except the enchanting Matthew Taylor, who is so reasonable and interesting that he should have his very own show, in my opinion. You can listen to it here.

And now for your pictures. It is a dreich old day today; the sky is the colour of old teeth and the rain is dripping slyly off the eaves. Here are some photographs of sunnier days.


21st Oct 8

21st Oct 2

The amazing hydrangea, still bashing on:

21st Oct 3

21st Oct 7


21st Oct 5

21st Oct 6

21st October 1

And the obligatory single leaf:

21st Oct 9

No prizes for guessing what comes next:

21st October 10

21st October 11

I don't want to turn entirely into one of the really mad dog people, but would you just observe the delicately placed paws? As if she had been taking ballet or etiquette lessons. I really shall stop now, and we will say no more about it.


  1. I really really could not agree more about the universal benefits question. It is entirely bizarre to me that it is somehow considered left-wing and socialist to say that people who earn vast sums ought to get child benefit on principle. I also cannot understand why people don't seem to realise that since the money is running out, there is a simple choice - the government must spend much less or WE must pay much more tax - in the context of incomes that are often shrinking, at least in real terms. It is not that the Tories are taking the money saved and pocketing it, laughing all the while, after all.

    However, I am sad there was no further mention of pea soup. My pea soup is consistently rather dull.

  2. Oh again, how I agree. And thank you for having the courage to say it and the wit and wisdom to say it so well.

    I had tried to say as much elsewhere but one gets shouted down by those only able to relate to the space they occupy at the present moment.

    If half of the approx 14bn saved by STOPPING ALL Universal benefits and re assigned half of it to those in greatest need would still save, um about 7bn – admin costs. (That’s another debate!)

    But sadly, I have noted too often that those in greatest need of support are the ones whose hands are often most tightly closed. Pride? Sad whatever it is.

    I am not and never have been rich. I gave up a good job to raise children, having saved and made some pretty calculated decisions and don’t regret a moment. So, we never got to Disneyland, but we have seen so much of this wonderful island on which we reside. We did not NEED Child benefit but could not refuse it. So I made a DD to a UK children’s charity for the amount received. We got by. I could have used it. Children’s shoes cost a mint. Transport to rural schools, learning to swim when the town is a thirty mile round trip etc etc all took their toll. But we did what we could and what we thought important. What we couldn't or what could wait went on the wish list. It’s still pretty long, but what is life if all of your wishes and dreams are fulfilled? I need no medals nor violins.

    Oh, and thank you for the sunshine. And the Dogs.

    Oh, and I shall listen to Matthew Taylor later this evening. Thank you.

  3. Agree. And quite proud to come from a country that agrees too. So that's a nice change.

    One little thing, so sorry, but it's my pet peeve - it's Gandhi!

  4. Kate - what a lovely comment. Might do the pea soup tomorrow. I find the secret is: cook the peas for about one second, and add a tiny spoon of sugar. It brings out the flavour.

    BYT - wonderful comment, thank you. The children shoe thing never ceases to amaze me. Hundreds of your Scottish pounds for something people grow out of in ten minutes. Some clever person should set up a shoe exchange. V big society.

    Anon - AH AH AH AH. I am always castigating people who make idiot spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Serves me right, galloping about on my high horse. Do you think it no coincidence that it was the great leveller's name which I got wrong? A little bit of Eastern wisdom for me, about hubris and judgement and all. Have corrected it now. You are quite right to have it as a peeve, and thank you for being so restrained as you pointed it out.

  5. I am absolutely with you on the subject of universal benefits - but I'm a little disappointed that, along with so many others, you have accepted the proposition that there is no money in the country. There is plenty - billions of pounds of it - but it all sits in the pockets of far too few people. The figure to be paid out in city bonuses this year dwarfs the amount to be saved by cutting child benefit. Debating the purpose of universal benefits just masks the debate we should be having about why we continue allowing a few to profit at the expense of many.

  6. Sharon - it's a really good point. However, I do not quite see how much more could be taken from the absurdly rich just now. The high tax bracket is fifty percent, and VAT is at twenty percent, which obviously high-spenders pay the most. If you go much higher than that, then it's all tax shelters all the time. What I really do think is that the government should go after big companies who avoid tax. That's where the serious money is. Apparently Vodafone have avoided SIX BILLION in tax. That would pay for a few children.

    The really sad thing, from my point of view as an old Labour voter, is that many of the tax loopholes were put in place by Gordon Brown.


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