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Oh for a Government of Principle

Where have all the principled politicians gone? I’m starting to suspect that they’ve largely died off and that perhaps the present hegemony of the inter-war and post-war generation (I roughly have those born from around 1930 to 1960 in my sights here), which has controlled our political system for my entire life, never had any principles; other than perhaps that they are always right:  forget the lessons of the past, forget the critics and of course forget the people (this one being a personal gift of Tony Blair).

If you haven’t already guessed, like most people I’m upset about the proposed cuts our delightful coalition government has decided to force upon our country (assuming that is they can pass such measures through the Commons, never mind the Lords and of course that the coalition doesn’t collapse after the Spending Review). In particular, it’s the wholesale, unashamed attack on the principle of universality, be it in benefits or in the education system all under the guise of essential savings that need to be made to cut “the deficit”.

As a historian, by education (BA (Hons) History, UCL, 2002), I’m very familiar with the old distinction that the Victorians drew between the “Respectable” and the “Non-Respectable Poor” that enabled gentile Victorian society to turn a blind eye to the burgeoning squalor that had grown-up in England’s towns and cities and pat themselves on the back for the meager and insufficient support they provided to the “Respectable Poor”, whilst largely letting the “Non-Respectable Poor” rot in the circumstances they found themselves.

It took the better part of a century for the British political establishment to transition from the laissez-faire model that had dominated the nineteenth century and justified those Victorian attitudes towards the poor to the more progressive, interventionist model that is now considered the cornerstone of the British and European political systems. This transition was pioneered by men of principle (Booth, Rowntree) and the legislative cornerstone for the model was laid by the Liberal Party following their election in 1906 and re-election in 1910 (twice: Jan & Dec).

It is perhaps hard for people to appreciate the depth of the poverty endured by most of Britain’s population in the century preceding this landmark legislation passed by this government (though you can get a vivid picture of it by picking up any of Dickens works) or of the stigma that was attached to having to petition the parish for assistance under the old Poor laws that they replaced, however, the very fact that these reforms have effectively removed poisonous terms like “the Respectable Poor” from our collective memory is a testament to their success.

And it is my firm opinion that these changes have become so intrinsically established in the British mindset due to the underlying principle of universality that would come, by the time of the post-war reforms, to unify them and that they stand and fall on the basis of their universality, because without this universal element your access to these benefits be it education or health care or simply the right to have a roof over your head becomes about one thing and one thing alone: the amount of money at your disposal.

Thatcher laid what I consider to be the first blow against the principle of universality in 1970 when she earned the moniker: “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for her removal of the entitlement to free school milk for children over seven years old. Though it is worth noting that in her autobiography she had this to say with regard to this reform:

“I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”

And it seems that despite her sage observation, albeit from a self-serving political angle rather than a principled realisation of the wrong she had wrought, it is a lesson that goes ignored by the present coalition government.

Which brings me to the current raft of coalition reforms, which have been announced on an almost daily basis since the party conference season and threaten almost every aspect of the daily lives of everyday people up and down the country. More importantly they seem to disproportionately disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society, as well hitting  as women and children in particular. (I wonder if anyone else has noticed the underlying misogynistic streak in these reforms?)

I was moved to write this post by a conversation I had with my step-brother’s mother last Friday, concerning the proposed reforms to Child Benefit, which as I am sure you will know propose the introduction of what is effectively a means testing system based on the tax code of a the parents. Accepting the clearly ridiculous position of a family unit where if a single income exceeds £44,000 a child would not be entitled to the benefit, but if both incomes were £1 less that this they would (or combined £87,998) the child would be entitled, she broadly supported the change.

And this is where we parted company because though in our conversation I indicated a that I might support the measure if it was against the actual higher rate of tax (technically it’s rather stupidly called the “Additional Rate“) of 50% on earnings above £150,000 per year rather than the middle rate of tax on reflection I simply can’t support the measure at all because to do so is effectively the thin end of a very dangerous wedge that threatens to fundamentally undermine the principle of universality inherent in this benefit, a benefit that effectively equalises all children.

And it is this principle that the government should be seeking to support not destroy because it has the fundamental effect of enabling mothers of all financial backgrounds to relate to each other as mothers, rather than to look at their financial differences. Once we start to means test and thereby limit this type of benefit how long will it be before those who no longer receive Child Benefit begin to question whether others slightly less well off than them should receive it and from there it is a very slippery slope.

And once you start to think in this manner it quickly becomes apparent how many of the reforms proposed by this government in the name of “essential cost cutting” are simply thinly disguised attacks on the principles of the universality that fundamental underpins of our social settlement and of the truly dangerous return this might herald to the days of the “Respectable” and “Non-Respectable Poor”. The Liberals of 1906 who so bravely implemented the first of these fundamental changes to our settlement are more than likely turning in their graves.

And before I sign off I ask you to reflect upon this: if it is so essential to cut these costs now, why wait until 2013-14 to enact the changes? Now where is the logic in that?