Regional variations

My friend Mr Townsend's doctrine of just deserts has not been universally admired
Click to follow
It is rare, in these days of doctored spin, to find a politician who is prepared to put his head above the parapet, stick out his neck and tell it like it is. But one such is my old friend John Townend, Rotarian and the Conservative MP for Bridlington. I can assure readers that John's neck is extended, his head well-clear of the ramparts and his mouth is working overtime.

We first met, as I remember, at a Northern Conservative Women's Bazaar in the early Eighties. Mrs Thatcher was at her apogee, and Mr Townend had just won first prize at the Tombola - a Magnum of Dom Perignon which he, as a successful wine merchant, had originally donated. As those around him celebrated his victory, he turned to me and spoke words that I will never forget. "I deserve this", he said. Just that.

Ever since that day I have followed Mr Townend's career with interest. For it seemed to me that he had captured an important truth in those three simple words - that it was morally and practically important for people to get what they deserved. And, by dint of logic, it was equally important for people not to get what they didn't deserve. So I observed Mr Townend's rise from back- bench obscurity to the most prominent positions to which a politician, not actually called to the ministerial purple, can aspire. I applauded as he stormed into the chairmanship of the Conservative back-bench finance committee, and toasted his election to the executive of the 1922 committee. Like that day so many years before he was, I felt, getting what he deserved.

As one might expect with any man of principle, Mr Townend's ascent has been accompanied by controversy; his doctrine of just deserts not being universally admired. Just this week he has issued a set of proposals encapsulating his philosophy, and the reaction has ranged from the apathetic to the down-right uninterested. But it seems to me that readers of The Independent need to be familiar with them.

My friend's proposals include: cuts in benefit for new-age travellers (who do not deserve help because they are not really available for work), teenage single mothers (whose lack of husbands force them to sponge off the state), and for ridiculously big families who are dependent on unemployment benefit. "We should use the benefit system to discourage people from having large families, when they cannot afford them," he writes in this month's Parliamentary Review.

The beneficial effects of large cuts in the support of the undeserving poor will be threefold. First, a strong message will be sent about what kinds of behaviour society is prepared to tolerate. Second, those who are feckless or stupid will pay directly for their fecklessness and stupidity. And finally, money will be made available to reward the deserving for their efforts, in the form of tax cuts.

Having wielded the stick, Mr Townend can now produce his carrot. Savings thus gleaned, he argues, can be expended on allowing those (usually hard- working professionals) who employ cleaners, nannies and gardeners, to offset the cost of their wages against tax. This will, of course, increase employment in the domestic sector.

The boldness of this vision is breathtaking. New Age Travellers, forced from their peripatetic nuisance-making can find environmentally friendly employment in the gardens of successful entrepreneurs and journalists. The few remaining illegitimate children born to teenage mothers, or the unwanted offspring of over-large families can be indentured into service in even quite modest homes. They need never know what it is not to have work.

By so enormously increasing the gap between the penalties for failure and the rewards of success, Mr Townend accomplishes an important piece of social engineering. He inculcates in all citizens a strong motive for succeeding. And thus - I am sure you will agree - brings the classless society that much closer. A brandy? Just ring the bell.