Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Rich, The Poor and the Coming of Plan C

It's been fascinating to listen to talk radio and look at the political blogsphere this morning. Two quite distinct proposals have highlighted not only the strongly divergent attitudes to wealth, poverty, work and non-work in our society but also the ideological battle raging between and within the Coalition parties.

The first is this proposal from Chris Grayling, supported by the pompous London Mayor and aspirant Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson. This has drawn both support and condemnation in almost equal measure but surprisingly some on the Left like this idea. It appeals to those who believe there is a "legion of the underclass" existing solely on State handouts, cash-in-hand work and petty criminality. That there are people like this is hard to deny but their numbers are statistically insignificant.

To be fair, there have always been those living at the edge of society for whom the "normal" concepts of work and responsibility mean nothing. Elements of the Coalition have always had a blind spot where the young are concerned and this was only intensified by the riots last year. There is a very real belief that unless the young are in work or in education or training they will one day be the next bunch of rioters. Apart from the fact that a good number of rioters were relatively wealthy and employed, there is a wider debate about people "getting something for nothing".

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I don't doubt Grayling's motives but this all smacks of State-enforced social engineering. If people choose to opt out of work, education or training, that's their prerogative. It doesn't make it a permanent lifestyle choice but there are people who want to do it for short periods of time.

The second story doing the rounds is Nick Clegg's comments on taxation. His remarks have predictably gone down like a lump of cold sick on the Right with the standard bearer of monetarism, Chancellor George Osborne, predictably sceptical. Element of the Left have been similarly vitriolic in their disapproval though much of that is of course because it has come from their favourite bete noire, Mr Clegg, who props up the nasty Tory Government.

Fortunately, some more thoughtful analysis comes from the New Statesman  which points out the liberal connection between Clegg's comments and the writings of the philosophical inspiration for modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill. As usual, there is a confusion on the Right between income and wealth. Clegg is NOT attacking those who work hard and earn a lot but those who sit on wealth without either having done much for it or doing much with it.

At the political and philosophical level, Clegg's article and Grayling's proposal are significant because they mark the intellectual and philosophical divergence emerging between the Coalition parties. In May 2010, there was a historic convergence of "liberal conservatism" as typified by David Cameron and "conservative liberalism" as typified by Nick Clegg and the Orange Bookers. The two strands united over the broken rotting corpse of thirteen years of failed Labour state authoritarianism and were able to agree on a limited programme of Government based around an attempt to resolve the disastrous public finances.

However, philosophically, this convergence wasn't going to last forever and the pressure of Government has begun to force open the divide - the Conservatives are predictably retreating into a laager of tax cutts for the wealthy and public spending cuts intellectually supported by Hayek, the Austrian School and Arthur Laffer. The Liberal Democrats are re-discovering the social responsibility of Mill with its emphasis on attacking the inequity of wealth rather than the inequity of income.

It seems that in 2015 there will be three distinct visions of Britain on the table for the electorate and in a pluralist democracy that's how it should be.

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