David Cameron's misappropriation of the word "privilege"

The Prime Minister says he wants to spread privilege - the IEA's Philip Booth really hopes that isn't what he meant.

Given the constraints of political speech-making, David Cameron's effort earlier this week was reasonable. There was the misunderstanding of international trade that one always gets from politicians when he said that developed countries were in a global race and faced a sink or swim situation. This is a common misconception. But, trade theory is tough, even for those who have the best education money can buy, so this line of reasoning is understandable. Of course, when new nations develop there are more opportunities for specialisation and trade, not fewer. The developing countries get richer and, although there may be some particular industries that suffer problems as a result of changing trading patterns, we are not in a race in some kind of zero sum game. The growth of China and India change the big picture relatively little. With good policy, our economy might grow at two to three per cent per year and with bad policy it might grow at zero to two per cent per year. Our concern should be to have good policy at home - but not because we are in some kind of economic race towards a fixed prize.

David Cameron's second error though, was rather surprising coming from somebody with a degree in PPE from Oxford. One should never be too harsh on politicians in front of a camera. It is easy to use the wrong words or for the words to come out in the wrong order. However, this was a carefully scripted speech written by professionals.

After pointing to his own educational background, Cameron said that he wanted to "spread privilege". I really hope not.

Privilege involves law that benefits the few (though, to interpret the principle more widely, the few could even be the majority). In the Soviet Union, travelling abroad was a privilege. In this country, pension contributions are "tax privileged". Doctors are privileged by laws restricting entry. An expensive education is definitely not a privilege - it is a freedom. It is a freedom that few can exercise but this does not make it a privilege.

What we definitely do not want to do is "spread privilege". Spreading privilege really means creating lots more situations where there are laws in existence for the benefit of the few. However, I am sure that is not what David Cameron intended to argue for; his intention, I am sure, was to say "widen privileges" so that existing privileges are available to more people.

But, even this is not what we should aspire to. The equivalent in the Soviet Union would be to pass a law letting some more people travel. What David Cameron really means is that he wants to "widen opportunity" or, better still, "restrain freedom less". The corporatist interpretation of his aspiration would be that he wants to ensure that education is better for everybody. The liberal (in the proper sense of the word) interpretation is that he wants to give many, many more families the freedom to choose their children's education.

Does any of this matter? Yes, it does. The meanings of words evolve, but those who believe in freedom are used to having words hijacked because it enables the enemies of freedom to make their case in an underhand way. This is why I had to put "in the proper sense of the word" in brackets after using the word "liberal". The word privilege is already used by the left in the education debate in a way that is very damaging. They argue that "higher education should be a right and not a privilege". In fact, this is using the word in the same way as David Cameron uses the word - and this is disastrous in the debate. Under new funding arrangements higher education will become a "freedom". Under old funding arrangements it was a "privilege" because laws had to be passed and regulations made that limited higher education to the few as a result of fiscal constraints (and that higher education was financed by the many for the benefit of the few). In fact, those on the liberal side of the debate are demanding that higher education should be "a freedom and not a privilege". Those on the left are actually arguing that higher education should be "a privilege and neither a freedom nor a right". The last slogan does not trip off the tongue quite as well and I am not sure the left would get much traction from using it - hence their desire to redefine words. It is the left that believe in privilege because, if access to goods and services is free, then that access has to be restricted by law creating a privileged few.

Privilege is inimical to a free society. Indeed, it is the fight against privilege that should define everything that Conservative and Liberal parties should stand for. It was a fight that began with Magna Carta. Please, let us not have a policy of spreading privilege. And please, let us also not help the left in redefining the language of freedom.

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs

A couple of privileged French fops. Image: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.