Editor-At-Large: ‘Freedom of choice’ means nothing in a class-ridden society

 

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George Osborne's Budget – a complex set of financial imperatives painstakingly designed to take sickly Britain Plc a tiny, faltering step down to the road to solvency – has opened another bout of class warfare. According to critics, a gang of public school toffs have looked after their mates, while pensioners and the lower orders have been treated with contempt. Swingeing taxes have been imposed on stuff the working class loves – sausage rolls, fruit machines, cheap booze and fags – while top earners get a tax break. A gross simplification, but surely one of the reasons the country is stuck in the doldrums, with the threat of a "double dip" recession, is that we see everything in terms of class.

In the US, class is denoted by wealth and success. Here, we still harp on about where your granddad worked, what kind of house your parents lived in (terraced or detached), whether you attended private school or not. Clubs – from working men's establishments to the Bullingdon and White's – perpetuate the ranking system. No matter where you started out in British society, ranking within your class continues to this day. I grew up in half a terraced house in a working-class part of inner London, with an outdoor toilet, and yet my parents banned me from talking to kids in council flats! On a crowded island, these subtle demarcations count for a great deal. They give us a sense of individuality. Postcode gangs have replaced the Krays.

The only way to end the importance of class is via education. The Government is expanding choice within the state sector with academies and free schools – perpetuating the idea of special treatment with endless variations on the existing fee-paying, grant-aided and religious schools. Politicians talk of a "level playing field", but as long as people can buy privilege for their kids through their choice of school there's no chance it will happen.

In the UK we talk of "freedom of choice" but that tends to favour the wealthy, who can afford to live near the good state schools or go private. Choice is meaningless without spare cash. Droning on about choice in the NHS is obscene: most people can't afford to travel around the country to be treated. All they want is a local, efficient, well-run service close to home.

Ed Miliband taunted the Cabinet by calling out "Downton Abbey"– as if his front bench isn't stuffed with privately educated members of the middle classes. Politicians of all backgrounds claim expenses, have perks like free travel and secretaries, and enjoy long holidays. That makes them totally out of step with most of the people they serve. In modern Britain, where a quarter of all young people are unemployed, class divisions are getting simpler: soon we'll be divided into those who have never worked, those who can't get work, and the lucky minority who are managing to hold down a job. As for mansion taxes, stamp duty increases and so on – these are of little interest to the vast majority of people who can't even afford to buy a tiny shoebox to call home.

The much-vaunted reduction in the top rate of tax will hardly affect the very rich because they can afford financial planners to circumvent the existing rates. David Cameron is the only member of the Cabinet known to have paid the 50p rate, though many of his colleagues have assets worth millions. Osborne insisted on the radio he didn't earn over £150,000: who believes him? Last week, a newspaper asked Cabinet members if their total annual earnings exceeded that figure (their basic salary is just over £134,000). Eight said no, four refused to answer, and nine chose not to reply. What does that tell you about transparency in government? In 2010, Philip Hammond avoided tax by moving shares in his property company into his wife's name.

Despite claiming to pay tax in the UK, the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith owns a £7m estate in Devon and a £7m home in Richmond, both held through offshore property companies based in the Cayman Islands, which has obvious tax advantages not open to the rest of us. Mr Osborne called such schemes "morally repugnant", but what's morally reprehensible about this Budget is the way it's been dressed up as if we're all shouldering Britain's debts together. Yes, the rich do get richer, and the poor pay more – and not just for sausage rolls.

Design gold for Stella and her go-faster stripes

Designing the kit for our Olympic team is a bit of a thankless task, and if your dad's a living legend people will be queuing up with brickbats, hinting that you are trading off your famous surname. The fact is, Stella McCartney has designed excellent sportswear for Adidas for some time, and she's one of the few people in fashion who bothers to always include flattering pieces for women who are size 16. So she's more than qualified to produce clothing for a huge variety of athletic body shapes. Best of all, Stella does listen to what customers want. I'm a fan, although not all her stuff works – those slightly naff cut-out dresses (as worn by Kate Winslet etc) did my head in, but she manages effortless slouchy stuff every single season. As for the moaning about "messing about" with the Union Jack – it's not easy to take an iconic symbol and turn it into a desirable T-shirt, but she's pulled it off, unlike Geri Halliwell with her tacky Union Jack frock for Next. The Olympic logo may be naff, but Stella has injected some style into the proceedings, even if the paisley all-in-one she wore to the launch reminded me of a Kwik Fit boiler suit.

Puffed-up Bear wrecks breakfast

Thought for the Day is becoming a parody of itself: I have a list of contributors whose mind-rotting platitudes can ruin my breakfast – Angela Tilby, Anne Atkins, Rabbi Lionel Blue. And now, the latest addition to the list of bores – adventurer self-publicist Bear Grylls. Unlike the engaging Ray Mears, regularly on our screens in a remote part of the world boiling up dirty water and cheerfully eating bugs, Bear Grylls is insufferably self-important. The Discovery Channel has just dumped him in the US, and he popped up on Radio 4 last week in his role as Chief Scout, to plug Sport Relief. From the moment he kicked off with "Hi guys", my hackles rose, and when he announced that "life is a journey", I reached for the off switch. Bear, I can travel without you, thanks.

Real-life desperate housewives

Times are changing. The original social networking site Friends Reunited is being relaunched, and this time around will target the over-forties. Hugely successful, the site was bought by ITV for £175m in 2005, but then Facebook took off and it was sold on for just £25m. Now, Friends Reunited will be promoting the chance to "collect and store memories", rather than the chance to meet people online.

Friendship seems to have been replaced by online sex. There's been a huge growth in websites promoting infidelity: 400,000 users in the UK log on each week. MaritalAffair.co.uk has 600,000 members, mostly middle-class wives aged between 35 and 64. Over 10,000 signed up the day after Valentine's Day. How many husbands have any idea?

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