Leading article: Fairness, Mr Cameron? Let's hope so

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The Independent Online

"The Big Society is not about creating cover for cuts," the Prime Minister told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week. Others may doubt him, but The Independent on Sunday is prepared to accept his word. We support the idea of the Big Society; just as – separately – we accept that there have to be cuts in public spending.

Unlike many of David Cameron's critics, we approve of the idea that we should all take more responsibility for the society of which we are part. We may wonder whether his fine words are more than the upper-middle-class decency of a magistrate's son brought up in a sealed bubble in genteel Oxfordshire, and whether they offer a practical guide to the formulation of policy. But to him we extend the benefit of the doubt.

Similarly with the Government's attempts to balance the books. We have made our position clear, that we are with Alistair Darling and now Alan Johnson, the new Shadow Chancellor, in saying that the cuts planned by George Osborne go too far and too fast, putting the long-term prospects of recovery at risk. Yet, regardless of the precise timing and scale of the cuts – and Mr Osborne and Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, seem to be hinting at some flexibility – it remains the case that painful cuts do have to be made.

The argument for the Big Society is therefore independent of that for cuts, and the case for both depends, crucially, on fairness. People are prepared to show responsibility, and to accept cuts, if they are convinced that the terms are fair. In his speech last week, Mr Cameron said: "It's time for a new conversation about what fairness really means."

We welcome the chance to take part in such a dialogue with him in our article today. In another article, we identify 10 sources of unfairness – or at least the perception thereof.

Let us begin with the proposed cut in child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers in two and a half years' time. We do not think it is wrong that higher-rate taxpayers should bear a substantial share of the financial burden that is coming. We understand that it would be a brave government in this country that would go further than the 50p-in-the-pound rate above £150,000 a year introduced in Labour's dying days. (Although we note that the top rate of income tax was 60p until Nigel Lawson cut it in 1988.) Equally, we accept that the principle of universal benefits has to be questioned in times of fiscal stringency. This measure is, therefore, defensible, although the element of rough justice and the disincentive effect that will apply to millions of taxpayers just below the £42,375 threshold is indeed troubling.

We also accept that the problem of benefit dependency needs to be tackled. This should not be a left-right issue. Idleness was one of the great evils identified by William Beveridge in his 1942 report. It was one of the failings of the Blair-Brown government that it did not do enough to break the cycle of worklessness in the boom times; but it was Margaret Thatcher who broke parts of our society in the first place.

Yet it is not the treatment of those at the bottom of the pile – claimants, immigrants and public-sector workers on modest pensions – that is the most important component of fairness. Mr Cameron has so far had too little to say, in this new national conversation, about the responsibilities of bankers, highly paid and highly paid-off executives, footballers and other entertainers on telephone-number salaries, non-doms and the very wealthy, some of whom are donors to the Tory party.

Many of those who will lose child benefit can hardly be called rich, on less than twice average earnings. They live a long way down from the commanding heights of the plutocracy. True fairness requires a much greater contribution from the banks that caused the financial crisis and from the super-rich who accrued vast wealth over the past 13 years and more.

There are two possible directions in which this conversation about fairness could go. In one, we could discover that Mr Cameron is not quite as inclusive as perhaps he would like us to think. After all, he did not mention bankers or the rich in his speech on Wednesday. In the other, we could discover that the reason why he did not mention bankers last week is that he and Mr Osborne have important plans to ensure that the very rich contribute to the Big Society in the Comprehensive Spending Review next week.

Then we will know if fairness really means something.