Fairness and the middle class
Published in: Daily Mail
The explosive reaction to Chancellor George Osborne's child benefit proposal continues to ricochet round the Coalition's ears.
The plan to axe this benefit for anyone earning above the higher-rate tax threshold, currently just under £44,000 per year, caused a furious backlash.
This has been followed by the backlash to the backlash. The response to the outcry has been to sneer that while the better-off rail against handouts for the poor, they react like scalded cats to the suggestion that they should lose their own from the state.
Such sour petulance is only to be expected from the Left. But what is startling is that exactly the same sneering is also coming from the Cameroons, who have accused middle-class objectors of 'fiscal nimbyism' - morphing from 'not in my back yard' into 'not in my back pocket'.
How spiteful. And how unfair. For the child benefit proposal itself breaches the most elementary understanding of fairness.
It is deeply unfair, for example, that a family with one stay-at-home parent will lose this benefit if the sole earner earns more than £44,000, while a family with two working parents earning up to £88,000 will keep it.
Next, it offends against any real idea of social justice that young women should continue to receive what is effectively a financial incentive to have one baby after another, regardless of whether or not the fathers stick around, while traditional, responsible families are penalised.
It is also being keenly resented as the last straw by people who have felt unfairly picked-on for years.
The middle classes -- the Treasury's milch cow -- have always borne most of the tax burden. And under Labour, their interests were repeatedly attacked under the rubric of 'equality' and 'redistribution'.
To their deep dismay, they now find their supposed champions in the Conservative Party appear set to continue this class war.
Spreading the pain, which is what Cameroons want to be seen to be doing, is, indeed, fair enough. But they are not spreading it at all. They are instead insulating those on low incomes and dumping almost all the pain on the better-off.
Some analysts have calculated that a family earning £50,000 could be no less than £4,000 a year worse off after all of the Coalition's tax and benefit changes are implemented.
This is particularly damaging for David Cameron as he has made such a song and dance about 'fairness' being the signature motif of the new, cuddly Conservative Party.
The problem is that this is all about positioning, previously known as 'spin'. It is all to erase the view of the Tories as the 'nasty party'.
But in their anxiety to present themselves as no longer the party that bashes the poor, they are in danger of becoming seen as the party that bashes the middle-class.
For, in their unthinking scramble to wrap themselves in the mantle of progressives, the Cameroons have adopted the mind-bending injustice of Left-wing dogma -- which has redefined fairness to mean its diametric opposite.
Fairness, after all, involves the principle that people should receive either reward or retribution depending upon how they behave. But the Left removed behaviour from the equation altogether.
For behaviour offends their core belief in equality of outcomes, as it means not everyone is entitled to receive the same thing.
Well, of course they shouldn't. If people who behave irresponsibly receive the same as those who behave responsibly, that's profoundly unfair. And that is precisely what's wrong with our welfare state.
To illustrate the confusion the Tories are now in over this, David Cameron has explicitly acknowledged this key point. In a newspaper article yesterday, he wrote that 'what you receive should depend on how you behave'.
Amen to that. Yet it appears he is thinking only of getting people who could work off benefits and into a job. When it comes to things like child benefit, however, he has bought into the idea that it's wrong for people on higher incomes to receive benefits.
But since they also pay higher taxes, on what basis should they be singled out as deserving to receive no benefits in return? Only on the crass, Left-wing basis that it is somehow unfair for anyone to have more money than anyone else.
For sure, the principle that child benefit should be paid equally to all is wrong and should go. But what should take its place is rewards for responsible behaviour, such as marriage.
Rewarding responsibility rather than irresponsibility is essential to social justice. That's because it affords everyone the dignity of moral choice, which lies at the heart of what it is to be a human being.
That's why the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was right to say the poor should have fewer children as they couldn't expect their benefits to be increased if they continued to enlarge their families.
People on the Left have condemned this as 'cruel and abhorrent' . But millions of people decide regretfully to limit the size of their families if they can't afford any more children.
So why should people on benefits be exempt from that same presumption?
It follows that such folk on the Left view the poor as somehow different from everyone else -- indeed, less than human -- and call that 'progressive' politics.
This kind of twisted thinking defines the Left. Today, the Equality And Human Rights Commission is publishing a report entitled How Fair Is Britain? No prizes for guessing that the answer it apparently comes up with is 'not very'. Long-standing inequalities, it says, remain 'unresolved'.
Such as? Well, women in full-time work are still paid, on average, less than men. But that difference arises because, even in fulltime jobs, women often work fewer hours than men as they have other priorities, such as raising their children.
Next, the report attacks inequalities in education. Children born into disadvantage, it says, face an uphill struggle to get out if it.
For sure: but as deputy headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh so electrifyingly told last week's Conservative Party Conference, the main reason for that is the stranglehold exercised on teaching by precisely this dogma of 'equality', which makes few demands on pupils and many excuses for the ignorance in which it abandons them.
True, Commission Chairman Trevor Phillips is quoted as saying that fairness is not just about equality and some people need to be treated differently from others.
But the talented and persuasive Mr Phillips has a genius for running with the hare as well as the hounds.
And the dogma of equality on which his Commission is based results in manifestly unfair policies - such as discriminating against people because they live on the right side of the tracks or are white or male or middle-class or heterosexual or belong to whatever group deemed by cultural commissars to enjoy unfair advantages.
Such injustices arise, in turn, from policies promoting equality -- take the 'all must have prizes' mantra in education, or the obsession with 'lifestyle choices' which has destroyed the traditional family, or multiculturalism, which prevents ethnic minorities from being held to account for their own behaviour.
Language itself has been hijacked by the Left. Words such as 'fairness', 'tolerance', 'centrist' and 'progressive' have been twisted into their opposites.
If Mr Cameron is to succeed in repairing the damage done by the Labour government, he must reclaim the language.
Certainly, fairness should be his platform. But first he has to restore the real meaning of the word.