Pinochet, like Stalin and Franco but unlike Hitler, really liked killing his own people

For most of the past decade I've spent much of my time in south-west France. This month I upped sticks and returned to London for good. I felt pretty hesitant about it. Life in England, however much loved, means another dose of English newspapers, with their invented indignations and infantile sexual prurience, English dithering about Europe, the daily bullying that passes for interviewing on Today and The World at One, endless drivel about the monarchy and so on.

As it happens, I have been greeted by an entirely different circumstance: the moaning about the Labour Party current among my friends and acquaintances. I have always lived on the tattered fringes of the chattering classes: many of my friends vote Labour - or at least say they do. You wouldn't know it now. The whingeing level about Blair, Cook, Straw, Brown et al seems to have reached a pitch that can only be explained by some kind of in-built British masochism or a desire always to have someone to hate as much as Margaret Thatcher. How can this be? I say, remember Thatcher, Parkinson, Tebbit, Portillo, Howard. Remember the poll tax. Remember her voice. Remember their opinions. Look at the railways, the schools, Clause 28, the beggars in the streets.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Tariq Ali, a prince among anarcho- revolutionaries. But on my first Monday back in London there he was on Start the Week, roaring like a stuck pig about Blair and co. When I said to Tariq, "I have not come back to this country to listen to you sounding like Margaret Thatcher - plot different, voice the same," he accused me of being something called "new Labour".

This I resent. Just because you vote for a party doesn't mean you agree with them about anything much. To me, it just means you know what you don't want, what sort of world you want to live in, and who is likely to do as much as one can reasonably expect along those lines. Judging Blair et al after 18 months, I cannot see where their mortal sins yet lie, except for foreign affairs, which I agree verge on becoming a disgrace. I can think of other things to grumble about but, though I am now an old-age pensioner, my memory is still in good shape and I have total recall of the Thatcher years.

I want neither to go back to that past, nor do I have any craving to see Ken Livingstone back as mayor of London. I don't care if Livingstone is old or new Labour. I do know that I am deeply suspicious of people who can't move on to new things. If old Labour means anybody who was anybody regurgitating themselves exactly as before, then I'm certainly new. I have no solution to this problem, except the airing of it here, and a stubborn feeling that there is something phoney about the entire old/new conceit and I will continue to shake my fist at it.

Any knee-jerk belief in mythical divisions between Labour, old and new, pales into insignificance before the gap between the voices of the two Englands which these past weeks have spoken forth with gusto about Augusto Pinochet.

One England - some Conservatives, business interests, the Tory press - gave voice through people like Michael Howard, who seems to think that being elected in a fashion, many years after you've ruled as a dictator for decades, gives Pinochet some kind of moral authority; or through that small journalistic pot of anger, Taki, fuming away in the Sunday Times. Both are typical of one kind of England, their case for Pinochet being, "Poor old man: whom did he kill (apart from communists) that Stalin or Amin didn't?"

For the rest of us, the riff-raff and residue of the sixties and seventies, Anthony Howard opines that Straw's decision about Pinochet is the dividing line between Labour old and new. If you wanted Pinochet extradited you're old Labour, and if you wanted him sent home you're new.

I doubt it. Speaking for myself, I would have been happy either way. In a just world I would like Pinochet to suffer exactly what he inflicted upon the great Chilean singer and composer Victor Jara - he broke every bone in his fingers so that even if he had lived, he could never have played again. Then he killed him. But breaking every bone in Pinochet's hands is hard to contemplate. It's too late now; I would have liked to have done it then, and in situ.

I am also reliably informed that in Spanish jails you're allowed to eat and drink anything you want as long as you can pay for it. I will hope for Pinochet's punishment on this earth, but it hardly matters because the punishment of the gods is already upon him, and this punishment is neither old nor new, but eternal. His reputation is fixed. Every time some Chilean admirer tells us about his "economic miracle", Victor Jara's hands will rise up to shake their broken fingers at him through every cuttings file, video library and Internet-linked computer in the world. That's his punishment.

Pinochet certainly hoped for more, as did his hero, Franco. What these two had in common - apart from being unelected, getting rid of elected governments and electing themselves by force of arms and murder, being generals and "good" Catholics - was an extraordinary dislike for their own people if they turned out to be socialists, communists, radicals, or anything irritating that caught their eye. Hitler took a low view of Franco, for this, and other reasons. Unlike Hitler - but like Stalin - Franco and Pinochet did not have to demonise Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the backward in order to be mass murderers; they really liked killing their own people. Give me Margaret Thatcher, the two Englands or Labour old and new any day.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?

Show Hide image

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.