Friday 9 April 2010
Johann Hari: If you're looking for class war, just read Cameron's policies
It is very hard for the British people to make a serious choice in this election without talking about one factor above all others – class. This isn't about David Cameron's background; it's about his policies. It is a provable fact that he will redistribute wealth – substantially – but in a strange direction: from everyone in the big wide middle and bottom of British society, to the very top.
Here are the facts. He will give a £1.2bn inheritance tax cut to the richest 2 per cent in Britain – with most going to the 3,000 wealthiest estates (including his wife's). Then he promises to end the 50p top rate of tax, giving another £2.4bn to the richest 1 per cent. Then he has pledged to cut taxes on the pensions of the richest, handing another £3.2bn to the same 1 per cent. Then his marriage tax relief policies will give 13 times more to the rich than the poor. To pay for this, he will slash programmes for the middle and the skint, like the Child Trust Fund, SureStart and state schools.
But this is not called "class war". No. The nasty "class warriors" are the people who try – with hard statistical facts – to point out this rip-off by the rich. This exposes the assumptions that underpin our politico-media debate. Money being endlessly shovelled up to the top by the state is considered the natural state of affairs; anybody trying to speak for the interests of the majority is considered a rude and irrational "warrior." These premises were best rebuffed by the billionaire Warren Buffett, who quipped: "Let's face it – if there's a class war, my side's winning."
Yet the media is trying to render all of this taboo, by claiming that any discussion of class is an attack on Cameron's childhood at Eton. One front page screamed: "Now The Class War Begins!" – referring not to Cameron's policies, but Gordon Brown's mild reference to himself as "middle class." But how can the British people know what they are choosing, if we can't discuss which class will benefit from Cameron – and which classes will lose?
Yes, the differences between New Labour and the Conservatives are far too small, on this as on all issues. There are myriad ways in which the current Government has also spoon-fed the super-rich. They cheer-led the economy-crashing deregulation of the banks; they turned Britain into a de facto tax haven for non-doms; when you add it all up, a tycoon still scandalously pays a lower proportion of his income in tax than his secretary.
But it is wrong to say, on this issue, there is no difference at all. The gap is real, and millions of people live in that gap. The Institute of Fiscal Studies just published a long-term study of how Labour's tax changes have affected different classes, compared to the last Tory government. It found that the richest 10 per cent have seen their incomes cut by 9 per cent, to pay for an increase in the incomes of the poorest 10 per cent. A rich man has lost on average £25,000 a year; a poor woman has gained on average £1,700 a year. I have seen these changes among my own family and friends: gaining £1,700 is the difference between struggling to pay the bills, or being able to give your kids a summer holiday. Yes, there should have been much more – but the cigarette paper between the parties is big enough to make a pretty fat roll-up.
Cameron's policies make it pretty plain: this redistribution will be slammed into reverse by him, with state cash flowing in the opposite direction. Is this due to the fact that Cameron has lived his life in a bubble of extreme privilege, and thinks it is natural that People Like Us should be the primary beneficiaries of government action? This is a question that matters – but it needs to be answered carefully. It is idiotic to attack somebody for a decision their parents made when they were a child, or money they earned before he was conceived. There's nothing wrong with being an Etonian: George Orwell went to Eton, and went on to become the greatest left-winger this country has ever produced.
The problem isn't Cameron's extreme privilege – it is that he has never tried to see beyond it. He keeps accidentally revealing how warped his view of Britain is, and how little of it he understands. For example, Cameron said in an interview: "The papers keep writing that [my wife, Samantha] comes from a very blue-blooded background", but "she is actually very unconventional. She went to a day school."
Read that sentence again. Now imagine how Britain looks from inside David Cameron's head, where the 97 per cent of us who went to day schools are "very unconventional". (In the Bullingdon Club, he called George Osborne "oik", because he had gone to the £20,000-a-year St Pauls, not the £30,000-a-year Eton.) This points to a wider mindset. The group he considers "conventional" and "normal" are the only people he has ever really mixed with, and they are the people he chooses to staff his office with today – very rich people. Is it any surprise he makes policies that serve them, not us?
But this attempt to stop the British people understanding the class differences underpinning the election campaign is part of a wider effort to stop us understanding how our society still works. Cameron keeps saying class doesn't matter any more, and "it's not where you're from that matters, it's where you're going." But today, a child born into a poor family has to be 20 IQ points smarter than a child born into a rich family to have the same income when he is an adult. To a kid born in east London, the glistening towers of the City – just a 10-minute walk away – may as well be on a different planet.
But any discussion of this is stigmatised as old fashioned, gauche, or even "spiteful." Look at how the term "middle class" is used in our political discussion. The median income in Britain – where half earn more, and half earn less – is £23,000 a year. That's the middle class. Yet routinely the media will refer to taxes on people earning more than £100,000 – the richest six per cent – as "attacks on the middle class." Even the BBC has been referring to Cameron as "upper middle class", when he is related to the Queen and, with his wife, is estimated to be worth £30m – more than 1,000 times the middle-class wage. How is that the middle? The middle of what – White's gentlemen's club? By creating a false middle in this way, they obscure how much Cameron's policies serve a tiny clique at the very top.
Labour must not be intimidated into silence on this issue. On this, it is closer to public opinion than Cameron or his media cheerleaders. Poll after poll finds 75 per cent believe Britain is too unequal, and virtually nobody believes tax cuts should not be targeted at the rich. Indeed, public opinion is substantially to the left of Labour, choosing more progressive policies almost across the board – revealing yet again that New Labour's tragedy has been its conservatism and capitulation to the right. Despite all the disinformation, the British people are whiffing the truth: a Populous poll found that 50 per cent think Cameron is on the side of the rich, compared to only 42 per cent who thought he was on the side of ordinary people.
Yet Brown keeps lapsing into a feeble technocratic line of attack instead, complaining "the Tories' sums don't add up". This will fail and fail badly. People are so disgusted by politicians they assume all their plans are lies anyway – so finding a supposed "£6bn black hole" leaves everybody cold. He needs to appeal to people's visceral instincts instead.
The truth is plain, and it is provable. David Cameron's policies will take money from the hard-working majority of Brits, and hand it to his friends and relatives on landed estates and in tax havens. He is not on your side; he is on the side of a tiny clique who have every luxury in life and now bray for even more. Cameron bragged to his supporters last month: "Nothing and no one can stop us." It's up to the majority who will lose out if he become PM to say – oh yeah?
To follow Johann's updates on the general election, go to www.twitter.com/johannhari101
To watch Johann on the BBC calling for the arrest of the Pope, click here.
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