What Cameron and Clegg could learn from Churchill and Lloyd George

The People's Budget of 1909 introduced an array of unprecedented measures to tackle poverty and inequality. Its stated ambition was to be "a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests". Among the radical policy measures harnessed to achieve this ambitious goal were a land tax and an increase to inheritance tax. The People's Budget had its most staunch champions in David Lloyd George and Churchill, known to their contemporaries as the "Terrible Twins".

The Budget to be proposed this Wednesday by the government under the leadership of David Cameron and Nick Clegg is not going to have comparable ambitions. The series of vitriolic attacks on the idea of a "mansion tax" is a good indicator that taxes on wealth would not meet with much enthusiasm in Westminster in the current climate. However, while remaining fiscally "neutral", this Budget is likely to have far reaching ideological repercussions. The two central proposals of the coalition partners: the Tory abolition of the 50p rate of income tax and the Lib Dem move towards the £10,000 income tax threshold -- if implemented -- have the potential to drive a wedge between the rich and the poor.

First, take the Tory idea of scrapping the 50p rate. The debate over the fiscal benefit of keeping the 50 per cent tax rate continues; politically, the die has been cast. This move is controversial -- as the Guardian/ICM poll reveals -- two thirds of voters are in favour of maintaining the 50p tax rate. Indeed, in terms of people's perceptions of fairness, it is relatively easy to see why lowering the income tax for the richest 1 per cent of earners who get at least 6 times the national median income, might be seen as exacerbating social inequalities. It might not be equally obvious why this should be the case with a policy once considered to be "political gold": the Lib Dem proposal to raise the level at which people start paying income tax to £10,000.

Scrutiny reveals that not all that glitters is gold. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently showed that the £10,000 threshold for income tax is likely to benefit the richest households most, while leaving intact the plight of those who earn so very little that they don't even qualify to pay income tax. Even more problematically, it is also feared that this move could make a number of middle-income families lose child benefit and exacerbate the already dire financial situation of the "squeezed middle-class". What is particularly interesting in the context of this argument concerned with the impact of the Budget measures on the levels of inequality and the perception of fairness is that the proposal to lift a group of people beyond income tax will result in the stigmatisation of the poor as "undeserving".

There would be a big difference, on this proposal, between anyone earning £10,000 or less, who would pay no income tax at all, and those on middle incomes, who would get the first £10,000 they earn tax free. As Clegg himself observed once, the latter belong to a group of people "whose incomes are too high to qualify for welfare benefits, but too low to provide any real financial security". They are the "ordinary, hardworking people"; and they would be likely to hold in deep contempt those exempt from paying income tax altogether, and yet eligible to receive benefits -- that is, ordinary, often hardworking, but, in the opinion of middle Britain, "undeserving" people.

The reason is plain. The success of William Beveridge's legacy rests on the ideas, first, of linking together the notions of citizenship and welfare and, second, of using taxation as a bridge between citizens and the state. Contribution and entitlement are inexorably bound together, in the same way that citizens are bound to the state through taxation. What is at stake here is the sense of collective responsibility and identity. The proposal to exempt a group of people from their contractual obligation with the state is likely to have far reaching consequences for how these people are perceived by the rest of society. Lifting them out of the income tax net will result in a politics of us and them -- we are not all in it together since only some of us pay, since only some of us receive benefits. There is a better way of helping those who desperately need it: make them less poor by enforcing the living wage regulation, and make them more "deserving" by allowing them to exercise their citizenship responsibilities and requiring them to pay a very low marginal taxation rate on the first £10,000.

In the lead up to Budget day, the government of a nation eviscerated by inequalities -- where 40 per cent of all the wealth is owned by 5 per cent of the population and 70 per cent of approximately 60 million acres of land owned by less than 1 per cent of the population -- should not exacerbate the perception of unfairness. Needless to say, the most effective way of tackling these perceptions would be to change the reality. In order to tackle inequality in a serious way, the coalition government need a set of policies as radical as those introduced in 1909 by the government under Lloyd George and Winston Churchill when they put forward a proposal for a land value tax. Of course, the Terrible Twins' Bill was never implemented; it was opposed by the House of Lords as "a menace to property and a Socialistic spirit". Yet, for a short time it carried the promise of a Budget truly preoccupied with fighting inequalities. Sadly, if all goes according to plan and the two main ideas of the current coalition partners are implemented -- unlike the People's Budget of 1909 -- the 2012 Budget is likely to be commemorated as the Budget of Two Nations "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy [...] as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets: the rich and the poor."

Patricia Kaszynska is senior researcher and project manager at ResPublica

 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue