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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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era