Finally, the gloves are off. Startled from their corners at a cross-party debate hosted by Age Concern and Help the Aged, Labour and Conservative politicians this week squared up to each other on the key election issue of provision for elderly people.
Health Secretary Andy Burnham refused to rule out a 10 per cent "death tax" to provide residential care for Britain's rapidly ageing population. Andrew Lansley, shadow Secretary of State for Health, whose party favours hiking the inheritance tax threshold to £1m, was quick to characterise the death tax as an attack on grieving families.
Fighting for the soul of the electorate is one thing; scrapping over the estate is less poetic. But as more and more elderly voters risk losing their homes to pay for residential care, political stakes in home ownership have never been higher.
It's kind of exhilarating, after all these years of cod consensus, to see party politics dividing along traditional lines. The 10 per cent levy on estates, should it make it through to the Government's White Paper on the future of social care funding in three weeks' time, is the nearest Labour has got to a genuinely socialist initiative in decades. I'd like it even more if there wasn't already talk of capping taxation on estates worth more than £500,000.
The Tories, too, have peeled off the compassionate Conservatism mask and reverted to type with proposals for a one-off, voluntary premium of £8,000 to cover personal care costs. I particularly love that spirit-of-free-enterprise "voluntary", as if all pensioners had eight grand stashed away to spend on a dignified old age or flat-screen TV, as the whim takes them.
Crazily, given the Conservatives' stand on inheritance tax – a social policy worthy of the Sheriff of Nottingham – it's the "inequality" of a universal death tax that appears to get most Right-leaning goats.
There have been piteous evocations this week of abused prudence, of hard-working, tax-paying pensioners slaving for nothing, while their feckless contemporaries cackle from beyond the grave. The middle classes, we are assured, will be the worst hit. One tabloid paper even ran a public poll, sounding out how many of its readers would remortgage their homes before turning a tenth of its value over to the tax man after their death.
I'm not just sure how you get to start your argument with "as a taxpayer", declare your willingness to crawl through a loophole to avoid paying tax and keep the moral high ground, but I think it's time the argument moved on. The fact is that by 2026, one in five British people will be 65 or over – I will be one of them – and we will be looking at national care costs of some £25bn. The fact that I, in common with most, have paid taxes all my life will be neither here nor there .
Even as things stand now, tax paid over an individual's lifetime barely covers the cost of one hip operation. The money has to come from somewhere, and taking it from me when I'm dead seems a sensible and relatively pain-free option. Sure, I'd like to leave something to make my children's way in the world easier (always assuming there's anything left in a future when pensions are a faint folk memory), but it's not my right to do so, any more than it is my right to wear only cashmere and dine on larks' tongues.
"A person of bourgeois origin," wrote George Orwell in 1937, "goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants, within reasonable limits." Two generations down the line, it seems those reasonable limits have been abandoned. The traditional aspiration of the middle classes has petrified to a sense of outraged entitlement and a petty refusal to share what has landed in our laps. Because, much as we like to think of ourselves as a nation hauling itself up on its British bootstraps, the reality is that most wealth is not earned, but inherited. For every Alan Sugar there are millions dying in the circumstances – good or bad – they were born to.
My own generation – sneaking in on the coat-tails of the baby boom – came in for an extra windfall when property prices soared out of all meaningful context. We can call it entrepreneurialism, but it was basically just luck. When it came to education , unarguably the key to social mobility, we were even luckier – good state schools, free university places; we had everything we now, as parents, can only dream of.
It hardly seems outrageous to suggest that some of this luck should be ploughed back into the system by means of a death tax. I don't much mind taxes for the living either, but this, I realise, is a bridge too far for either of the major political parties. Either way, we need to lose our obsession with "the deserving rich". It's just not dignified.