The key moment in modern British politics is not, as some might imagine, the bail-out of the banks and the subsequent recession as the collapse of Lehman Brothers reverberated around the globe. It in fact came a year earlier. Gordon Brown was still enjoying his political honeymoon, having finally taken over from Tony Blair as prime minister. Realising that it would help enormously if he had his own mandate, while at the same time bouncing a not yet ready if finally beginning to recover Conservative party into an early election, everyone in Westminster and the press was gearing up for a "surprise" November vote. Knowing that they needed something bold if they to were halt this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, George Osborne stood up at the Conservative party conference and announced that if elected, his party would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million.
It was a policy that ought to have been derided. Very few paid inheritance tax (about 6% of estates), the threshold being set at £300,000, shortly to rise to £325,000. It was though repeatedly complained about in both the Daily Express and Daily Mail, and many feared that even if they weren't currently over the threshold, they believed they soon would be if house prices kept going up and up as was expected. In response to Osborne's announcement, the polls shifted: either suggesting that the Tories were neck and neck with Labour or that Brown would win with a very slender majority. Unwilling to risk the possibility that he would only spend around six months in a job he had sought for 13 years, Brown called the election off. His premiership never recovered.
Apart from showing that Brown was the ditherer his opponents had made him out to be, the Tories noted it meant the home ownership revolution they had helped launched meant more to people than ever. They now not only wanted to own their own home, they wanted to pass it on to their children, regardless of whether or not they too had got on the property ladder. Where previously there had been majority support for a tax that kicked in at death on the upper classes, meaning they couldn't just pass the wealth either they or their own parents had accumulated down onto their children who potentially hadn't earned anything, this was dissipating. It could well be that they would have supported a threshold of £500,000 as much as they seemingly did of £1m, but even so it showed that attitudes were changing.
Ever since then, the Tories have become ever more daring in their defence of the upper middle at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable. They took Alistair Darling's plans for fixing the deficit which were the model of progression and all but turned them upside down; they took Labour's welfare reforms and put rocket boosters under them, abolished the future jobs fund and introduced the "work" programme, overwhelmingly dependent on making the unemployed toil away unpaid on various placements, to the point where it has driven some onto sickness benefits; they tripled tuition fees with the connivance of the Liberal Democrats, the only sweetener being that nothing is now paid upfront; and finally, they went the whole way and ignoring how the introduction of the 50p top rate rate of tax had been dodged, abolished it before there was any clear evidence of whether or not it was bringing in extra revenue.
Now David Cameron has all but declared the beginning of the end of the welfare state, with the young the first to be targeted. Partially, this must be filed alongside Michael Gove's leak to the Mail last week that "dumbed down" GCSEs would be abolished with "less intelligent" students taking old-style CSEs as part of a battle to win back right-wing Tory support, especially as Cameron also set out his stall in yesterday's Mail on Sunday. The Tories have already reached the stage where they're so worried about their polling that they've given in to backbench demands to move to the right.
Cameron's speech today shouldn't be seen as an example of his weakness however. It might have taken the budget and surrounding omnishambles for the Tories to decide that they needed to bring measures like this forward, but this is always what they planned to do. Look at what he said today and compare it to his message in the aftermath of last year's riots: they're almost identical. The themes are exactly the same: that a culture of workless, dependency and low aspirations has left us with an underclass who do nothing but drain the hard-working majority of their taxes. They believe that they are automatically entitled to houses and other benefits despite never having worked a day in their lives, while those who do the right thing find themselves having to either postpone having children, or move away from where they would like to live because they can't afford it.
The real culture of entitlement you see isn't among those at the top, who through breeding and public school drilling believe they are born to rule and walk into the best jobs, who think that taxes are things that the little people pay, and who donate massive sums of money to political parties in an effort to ensure these values are the ones everyone should aspire to, it's in fact at the bottom among those who have nothing. Call it playing divide and rule, a dog whistle, class war or whatever you like, it's all the same thing: setting the working and middle classes not against those who decide what to pay themselves, but against those who are dependent on the state almost always through no fault of their own. And it works: look at how popular the benefit cap is, which ignores individual, often unique circumstances, and we really should have seen this coming.
As politics must now be conducted, you have to understand that Cameron's kite-flying isn't a run-down of the changes to the welfare system to come, oh no, it's just the prime minister trying to start a debate. Just as we've so often been encouraged to have an honest debate about immigration, even though we've been having one now for 50 years, we must take this opportunity to discuss what the welfare state should do, despite the tabloids having being telling all their readers that it shouldn't be supporting the feckless, single mothers and all other assorted malingerers for years now.
Never before though has a prime minister set out so bluntly just how much the young (or at least the young not maintained on trust funds) should be discriminated against. No one under 25 should be eligible for housing benefit as it encourages worklessness and provides a roof that those in a job often cannot provide for themselves; that this is a disgraceful lie when the majority of those claiming HB are either in work or when most households claiming it have at least one person working goes unmentioned, including by most of the press. Cameron made no mention whatsoever that the real reason why the HB bill increases inexorably is that private landlords keep on pushing rent up and up, and didn't dare to suggest that there should perhaps be a cap as to how much can be charged, or indeed that there's a chronic lack of social housing as the council houses sold off haven't been replaced. Clearly, the fault lies with the young who believe they're entitled to move out of their parents' homes as soon as they can and that the state will provide, or with the clichéd single mother, getting pregnant repeatedly for the child benefit and free council house, no father in sight.
As for those unlucky enough to be without work and who know full well that the requirements on them are already onerous enough, Cameron believes they should be even tougher. The young shouldn't be able to exit education at 18 and start claiming straight away, regardless of whether their parents have been paying into the system all their lives, that's just madness. So is the idea that they should be able to claim when they haven't even drawn up a CV, even though many will need the help provided by the JobCentre to write one in the first place. Just as ridiculous is benefit rising in line with inflation when wages haven't; who cares if 2% or less of £500 a week is a massive difference compared to 5.2% of £64.50? And why aren't those on JSA doing community work much sooner than they are currently, when the Aussies are expected to do so after six months of claiming? Why should the prime minister have to concern himself with facts like how 49,000 claimants were sent on Mandatory Work Activity in the first 10 months of the scheme operating when it was expected that only 10,000 would be a year, a figure which doesn't include those on the other work placement schemes now intertwined with JSA? The age old points that putting someone on full-time "community work" for their benefit rather interferes with their attempts to find paying work and deprives others of an actual paying job have also gone for a Burton.
I could if I wanted spend more time pointing out the mistakes and false comparisons in Cameron's speech, such as how he twice mentions Income Support, which is the process of being abolished with everyone on it being reassessed as to whether they're entitled to Employment and Support Allowance, the vast majority unsurprisingly finding that they're not.
The point is that even though Cameron doesn't slip into simple scrounger rhetoric, instead blaming the system for these perverse outcomes, even though he knows full well that the tabloids and the "debate" he calls for will swirl with contempt and even hate for those who are reliant on benefits for whatever reason, the entire purpose of the reforms is as Cameron says not about getting the books in order, it's about the kind of society and country we want to live in. Cameron and the Tories want to make it crueller, harsher and nastier, punishing the young for being born at the wrong time. Pensioners meanwhile can be glad that for now at least they will keep all of their benefits, for the reason that Cameron promised that they would and that secondly they vote. The young mostly don't, and they tend not to support the Tories anyway. What began with the baby boomers asserting their right to pass on their houses has led directly to the young poor with abusive, stifling families holding them back being potentially denied the chance to escape until they're 25. And sadly, I expect Cameron's speech will be wholeheartedly welcomed. Perhaps it really is time to think of emigrating.
Labels: Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, David Cameron, inheritance tax, mandatory work activity, politics, scrounger processing, unemployment, welfare reform, workfare