“Fairness” in politics is a funny word. We are told, for example, that it is not “fair” to require older people to sell their homes to pay for their own social care, even if they have enjoyed supersonic house price rises. Instead, the “fair” thing to do is to raise taxes on the young, many of whom will never be able to afford to buy their own homes, but must nonetheless fund someone else’s.
Similarly, the lockdown restrictions that we have all lived under to various degrees over the past two years were measures imposed for a virus that disproportionately impacted older people – but it was not deemed “fair” to suggest that the young, who were less at risk from Covid, could be allowed a degree of freedom. Vast amounts of government funds have been poured into tackling the pandemic, but the record amounts borrowed by the government are, for the most part, to be paid off by future generations. To my knowledge no politician has suggested taxing those for whom this colossal response was intended to protect. To put the burden on one demographic, however outsized their influence on policy, would not be “fair”.
All well and good, you might say. Society is about our civic responsibilities to one another, and there is a social covenant that binds the generations: the young pay for and protect the old, and the old safeguard the future for the young.
Except it doesn’t always work like that. On 4 March, the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee published a report on how to fund the government’s estimated £321bn pledge to reach net zero by 2050. Cutting emissions, as we all know, is crucial to combating climate change, which poses an existential threat to the planet and to future generations. You might think that those invested in the idea that our obligation to each other transcends the generational divide would see this as a universal challenge – one that must be met by everyone equally. You might even think that older generations, who have benefited most from a world built on industrial practices that turned out to be highly damaging for our ecosystems, have an even greater responsibility to tackle the problem that will be faced by their descendants.
You would be wrong. The Lords report makes a big fuss about fairness, but its concern is not for the citizens of tomorrow, but the consumers of today. “Funding the transition primarily through charges to billpayers is regressive and involves invidious trade-offs, making some consumers pay for investments that will not directly benefit them,” it reads. The idea that no one should have to pay for services that don’t directly benefit them is a novel one – and utterly at odds with the very concept of general taxation. Imagine the outrage if it were argued that under-40s should get a rebate on their tax bill because they use the NHS at a fraction of the rate of the over-80s.
To give peers the benefit of the doubt, there is an important point to their report: the government has made bold pledges about greening the UK economy without a plan for how to pay for it. Without a clear strategy – and, the committee argues, some creative thinking around revenue streams – net zero is doomed to failure. The government urgently needs a financing plan that goes beyond taxes on energy bills.
And they are right. But the way they frame it makes it sound as though today’s consumers can wash their hands of responsibility for the climate crisis and leave it to their grandchildren to sort out. “We also call on the government to reconsider its opposition to the use of government borrowing… because future generations will be the main beneficiaries of net zero investment,” write the peers, with no trace of irony.
The Lords committee might not be trying to turn the race to net zero into a generation war, but that is the end result of suggesting that its cost be born primarily by the young. In doing so, they exacerbate one of the most pernicious double standards in politics: the idea that when the old need something – be it triple-locked pensions that grant pay rises to the retired when wages fall, a social care system built on the premise that those without assets should subsidise those with, or a nationwide lockdown to protect them from a virus they are especially vulnerable to – it is “fair” to demand that the young make sacrifices. When the reverse is true – when the young desperately need the old to invest in protecting a deteriorating planet and safeguarding the future for the next generation – no such sacrifice is called for.
As Edmund Burke put it: “society is a contract… between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” If ever such a contract existed, this report reveals that we are watching it being torn to shreds.