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Could the age of half-truths that characterised Boris Johnson’s premiership be at an end? And what might a change at the top mean for the prospects of building a fairer society? Read on to find out, and please share your thoughts via our poll about which British public figures are your fairness heroes.
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What might a new Prime Minister mean for the fairness agenda?
Few people (other than perhaps those in the Labour Party) will miss the fact that the Johnson government has been so scandal-prone in recent months that it has scarcely been able to govern. Whoever replaces him, we can reasonably expect that the new administration will do better on key ‘fairness’ values around due process, integrity and honesty; they would be hard pressed to do much worse.
However, the fate of the other squares on the fairness chessboard is much more uncertain. Will our next Prime Minister do a better job of meeting people’s basic needs, spreading opportunity, rewarding and treating people fairly, and encouraging reciprocity in society?
At this early stage in the Tory leadership contest, the omens aren’t good. We know that the candidates are crafting their arguments to gain the support of Conservative party members, who aren’t exactly aligned with the majority of British public opinion. With this audience in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that cutting taxes has become the key topic of debate, at least for now.
It’s worth noting that very few of the candidates at this point are arguing in favour of dramatic cuts to public services and the size of the state. No one wants to be seen to be arguing for a return to full-blown austerity. Instead, the main developing fault line is between Rishi Sunak, who is arguing that tax cuts are unwise because they will increase borrowing and that his opponents are spinning fairytales, and everyone else. The other candidates promise that their tax cutting plans will be fully costed, but in the absence of huge cuts to public services or new or increased taxes in other areas, the assumption is that they will rely on increasing levels of borrowing. The exception is the new Chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, who promised this morning to cut the budgets of every Whitehall department by 20 per cent.
Let’s assume that the new Prime Minister is likely to cut some combination of business and personal taxes, and to fund this through a mixture of increasing borrowing and spending cuts. What would the implications of such a shift be for a fairness agenda?
Let’s start with basic needs (what we call ‘fair essentials’). Fairness is one of the arguments being used to justify tax cuts, in the sense that they will help people to cope with the cost of living crisis. But cutting taxes (with the possible exception of the recent national insurance increase, which was unfairly targeted at low-to-middle-earners) is a very bad way to help those at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis. Income taxes are progressive; the poorest 41% of adults don’t pay any income tax at all, so income tax cuts will make no difference to them. By far the best way to help those in greatest need is to increase benefits (and wages), and to cap costs.
What about opportunities? For all of the valid criticisms that could be made of the levelling up agenda, it is (was?) a genuine and, eventually, thoughtful attempt to address the root causes of huge regional inequalities. And while few would claim that Johnsonism was a coherent political creed, the promotion of fair opportunities for all was at least a regular rhetorical feature. Will his successor even pay lip service to this objective? The signs so far suggest otherwise - look at how both Sunak and Zahawi are talking about their personal rags-to-riches stories to distract attention from their wealth and its trappings. These stories simply legitimise the status quo; the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission used a recent speech to suggest that there is too much focus on a small minority getting to the top.
Another aspect of fairness is reciprocity (what we call ‘fair exchange’). Society should support us when we need it, and in return we should contribute to society through taxation. Cutting personal taxes is likely to benefit the wealthy more than the poor. We covered the arguments against corporation tax cuts (and for windfall taxes) a few weeks ago. Lower taxes take us further away from a society based on fair exchange (and good quality public services).
The other two fair necessities are also likely to come under fire when the new Prime Minister assumes office. The idea of fair rewards is that we need to recognise that we do not live in a perfect meritocracy, and that those at the bottom deserve higher levels of pay - and support - than they currently receive, while those at the top might not deserve the excessive compensation that they enjoy today. But the mood music of the Tory leadership contest so far suggests that the view that Britain is a meritocracy is back on the menu. And if it ain’t broke, what is there to fix…
The last of the five fair necessities is fair treatment. Does everyone have equal status? Do we treat people based on need, and not just according to the principles of due process? Two policy areas are useful bellwethers here. One is health inequalities. Will the government’s fairly limited focus on what it calls ‘health disparities’ survive a change of leadership? The second is the climate crisis. Many Tory MPs are worried that the net zero strategy might be a victim of the change of leadership, after being personally championed by Johnson in the face of opposition from Sunak and many others in the party. Several candidates seem to be taking anti-net-zero stances, despite polling suggesting strong public support for climate action and huge political risks in rowing back on it. The dilution of climate targets would put paid to the idea that we live in a society that has any sense of intergenerational fairness.
Poll of the week
Who are your fairness heroes?
It’s not just in sporting events like Wimbledon that fairness is important. Fairness is about opening up opportunity for others, rewarding people for their contributions, and making sure people who fall on hard times have what they need, when they need it. Which British public figures, be they sports stars, campaigners or, dare we say it, politicians, are your fairness heroes?
Last week we asked for more ideas about how to make the game of Monopoly more realistic. Thanks for your suggestions. We’ll look at what we can include in our fairness house rules!
Reads of the week
“We wait until there is a problem like on free school meals and we react to that. But the reality is that sitting underneath all of this is the fact that the poverty levels of this country are too high and the government doesn’t have a strategic approach to tackling poverty.” The Conservative peer Philippa Stroud has launched the independent cross-party Poverty Strategy Commission aimed at finding practical solutions to poverty.
“There is a real concern coming now from children themselves about cost of living. They’re hearing it, they’re talking about it.” Children’s Commissioner for England Rachel de Souza has called on the government to develop urgent plans to tackle child poverty, amid evidence that children in England are increasingly worried about the impact of the cost of living.
“Other countries have recently or are currently innovating and reforming their childcare systems, partly in response to the pandemic – whilst England has not done so since 2017.” The Fawcett Society has published research looking at childcare and early education systems, with a comparative review of liberal welfare states around the world.
“Parents are not getting the support they need”. This is the inescapable conclusion of a report by the Nuffield Foundation, reviewing the evidence around support to parents of the youngest children.
“If we can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members, then a special type of judgment should be reserved for a society that deliberately weakens certain of its members.” Morag Treanor at Heriot-Watt University writes about how government policies over recent years have shamed single parents and heaped financial pressure on them.
“Many of the towering personal fortunes at the top – accumulated since the 1980s – have been largely unearned… they are less a reward for new wealth and value creation than the product of the upward extraction of existing wealth and corporate assets.” Stewart Lansley at the University of Bristol asks whether the post-war drive for a more equal society could help with today’s cost of living crisis.
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