Please, not just William

A couple of years ago a locksmith high on junk food pulled out of a McDonald's drive-thru without looking and wrote off my car. At the time, since I went in a split second from steel-cosseted calm to rain-drenched shock, I wasn't that pleased; but as time has gone by I've realised that he did me a big favour. However, it isn't the madness of autogeddon that I wish to examine this week but the plague of overfamiliarity that has swept British society.

Sitting in the police transit van a few minutes after the accident, I was chivvied through my statement by a couple of officers: "Calm down, William," said the WPC, reading my name from my driving licence. "We need to get the facts straight here." I was annoyed by the young woman's
tone, but it wasn't until my shock wore off - a few hours later - that I sat bolt upright and ejaculated: "She called me William!"

PC gone mad

The absurdly youthful police officer is a standard-issue accessory of middle-age, but it can only be in the past decade or so that they've begun to address valetudinarian members of the public by our first names. I blame "Call Me Tony" Blair for this insane inversion of social mores, as it wasn't until the kidult air-guitarist acceded to power that such informality became de rigueur. Now everyone calls me Will: people I've never met before, writing me formal requests, employ the ghastly salutation, "Hi Will", or even more absurdly, "Dear Will Self" - as if I were a Quaker - and as for those I encounter in the flesh, only in the US or Germany do they use my proper title: Mister Self.

I would be the first to acknowledge that formality - inasmuch as it implies an unwonted deference - should be spurned. I have never addressed anyone with a title as Lord Bureaucrat-turned-Arms-Dealer (or however it is they style themselves), and when shop assistants call me "sir", I'm quick to correct them.

However, there is a certain degree of respect that necessarily obtains to the hierarchy of age. Traditional African democracy was once described as “the elders sit under the big tree and talk until they agree", not "the senile geezers will sit under the big tree and bicker until they're carted off". A failure to accord senior citizens proper respect is, to my way of thinking, akin to those sinister forms of depersonalisation that totalitarian regimes enact against their chosen scapegoats. By patronisingly calling our elders "Maeve" and "Gerald", we make it that much easier to exile them to the gulag of the care-home system. But watch out, all you infants who behave in this fashion, for lo! - one day you will be infantilised so.

Gordon handshake

How can we explain this mass intimacy that has overtaken us? For clearly we do not live in an egalitarian society - let alone a grotesquely enlarged circle of friends. With so-called political correctness, the policing of language has clearly been an attempt to inculcate non-prejudicial attitudes to women, to ethnic minorities, to disabled and gay people. To a large extent this has succeeded, but only because the necessary adjustments to the law have taken place in parallel.

Nothing of this sort has happened to political and economic hierarchies. Just because you can call the Prime Minister "Gordon" to his face, it doesn't mean that you're welcome to drop round to Downing Street unannounced and goof out in front of the TV while Sarah rustles you up a snack.

In a society that has widening income differentials, and an entrenched hereditary monarchy, there is a delusional quality to everyone being on first-name terms. When I hear a minion calling his master "Dave", or "Harriet", or "Mervyn", I'm reminded how much hypocrisy became impacted into the single ascription "comrade" under the Soviet dictatorship, or "citizen" under the Terror.

Just as we insist on the right to presume close acquaintance with strangers and the powerful, so we regularly spurn those we come into intimate contact with. I'm grateful to my wife for pointing out that no one on London buses ever bothers to salute the driver; instead, they swipe their Oyster cards and walk on by. All sorts of encounters - in shops, banks, cafés - are downgraded in this way to the status of mechanical operations. Can such people seriously complain, if, having spent the day blanking their fellows, they return home to answer a phone call from a robot that croakily intones: "Hell-o, Will-i-am . . ."

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.