David Cameron during a joint press conference with his Slovenian counterpart at Brdo Castle on June 18, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Cameron has retreated from his promises on child poverty – but will it cost him?

Labour will not prosper if it is viewed merely as a repository of protest. 

History has reduced David Cameron’s modernising phase to gay rights and greenery. “White-collar liberalism” was pursued to the neglect of “blue-collar conservatism”. Yet in his quest to make his party electable he roamed more widely than is commonly thought. He unambiguously committed the Conservatives to a free NHS, pledged to match Labour’s public spending plans for three years and vowed to end the “moral disgrace” of poverty. In his 2006 Scarman Lecture, the then opposition leader declared, “I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty . . . Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong . . . Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential.”

His words were a repudiation of the Thatcherite belief that once a minimum standard of living has been attained, the level of income inequality is irrelevant. After tripling under the Conservatives from one in nine children to one in three, child poverty fell by 800,000 under Labour. To date, Cameron has been able to boast that this progress has continued during his premiership. Child poverty fell by 300,000 to 2.3 million in 2010/11 as middle-class earnings declined and benefits protected the incomes of the poorest. It then remained flat for the following two years. Against expectations, the figures published on 25 June for 2013/14 continued this trend. But the panoply of austerity measures imposed – the household benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases – and the nascent recovery in average incomes means it is unlikely to endure. It is forecast that by 2020, the year that Tony Blair earmarked for its abolition, child poverty will have increased by one-third to one in four children.

Just as it was the provision of welfare that enabled the fall in child poverty, so its removal precipitated its rise. Few Conservatives expected to be in a position to impose the £12bn of cuts they promised during the election. The Lib Dems privately planned to negotiate the figure down to £9bn or £10bn in the event that the Tories fell short of a majority – a deal that some Tories willingly would have accepted. The confirmation by George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith that they will indeed use their mandate to make £12bn of cuts likely guarantees increases in child poverty. Because of Cameron’s decision to ring-fence all benefits for pensioners, the axe will inevitably fall on families and the working poor. The cuts announced so far – a two-year freeze in working-age benefits, the reduction of the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 and the removal of housing benefit from 18-to-21-year-olds – amount to just £1.5bn. The remaining £10.5bn will not be itemised in full until the Spending Review this autumn.

After £21bn of cuts in the last parliament left few low-hanging fruit, it is tax credits that are viewed as the weakest link. They are the largest of the unprotected areas (accounting for £30bn) and have long been regarded by the Tories as emblematic of Labour’s statist meddling. Cameron denounced the payments as a “ridiculous merry-go-round”; Duncan Smith accused the opposition of using them to “buy votes” while in office (his party has performed precisely this trick in the case of the elderly, 47 per cent of whom voted Tory in May). In recent days, Cameron and other Conservatives have sounded like their Labour counterparts as they have denounced companies for failing to pay their employees higher wages. Sarah Wollaston MP told me that large firms were “taking us all for a ride” by forcing the taxpayer to “subsidise their profits” through the welfare system.

Cameron has identified a problem but he does not yet have anything resembling a solution. Unless the Tories annex Labour’s policy of “make work pay” contracts (as some opposition MPs fear they will), which would provide a tax rebate to companies that sign up to become living wage employers, they have no means of ensuring higher salaries. Mere exhortation will not suffice. The fashion for deriding tax credits on the left and the right elides the reality that they are a policy for an imperfect world. Neither salaries nor the personal tax allowance, for instance, take account of family size.

The relative poverty measure that Cameron lauded when it was in his interests to do so is now derided as meaningless. He cited “the absurd situation where if we increase the state pension, child poverty actually goes up”. Yet that example reflects precisely the fiscal gerontocracy that troubles so many. Relative to the old, the young are unambiguously worse off.

Conservatives fear that the rise in child poverty and the coming raid on tax credits will provide a depleted Labour Party with vital ammunition. But the opposition has its own problems to contend with. If the Tories are thought to be too unwilling to spend money on the poorest, Labour must counter the impression that it is all too willing to do so. The shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, fought hard in private to ensure that the party committed to voting for the reduced out-of-work benefit cap. A sharper distinction between welfare for the employed and for the unemployed is regarded as an unavoidable consequence of Labour’s defeat. As the working poor lose tax credits, they are even less tolerant of those perceived to be gaming the system.

Even in this case, however, Labour will not prosper if it is viewed merely as a repository of protest. It must convince voters that it is as devoted to saving public money as the Tories. As Cameron’s 2006 speech showed, uncharacteristic clothes must be worn in opposition – even if they are later discarded in government. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear