Landing on a million British doormats this week is a letter from the government notifying higher earners of their imminent loss of child benefit. The payment used to go to all households with children but will now be reduced for those with an annual income exceeding £50,000 and withdrawn entirely from those earning more than £60,000.
Most spending cuts rile the left; this one provokes utter incandescence among parts of the right. With single-minded vigour, if not award-winning originality, the Conservative-leaning press deplores it as an attack on plucky “strivers” (the quaintly condescending mot du jour to describe hard-working middle-income people) by a government of perfumed dilettantes with no grasp of life outside their inherited, moat-encircled castles, where they are fed grapes from the talons of golden eagles.
Since the policy was adumbrated two years ago, these angry scribes (whose ire is shared by many Conservative backbenchers) have been predicting a crushing public rebellion against it.
Maybe this insurrection will transpire in the new year, when the benefit change takes effect. There are certainly rumples in the policy: some households face swingeing marginal effective tax rates, for example, and dual-earners could be favoured over single-earners. Tweaks have already been made to the original policy. But all the evidence so far suggests that most people, including the majority of those who are about to lose child benefit, regard the measure as fair enough at a time of penury for the public finances. Indeed, it is hard to think of an austerity measure that commands more support in the polls.
This goes to show that national newspaper journalists, even those who proudly brandish their fealty to the average punter, generally have a tenuous grasp of what a typical living standard is. Simply by virtue of residing in London, a city more removed economically and culturally from its host country than perhaps any other on Earth, we get a skewed sense of the normal. In my experience, many in the media do not know, or struggle to accept, that the vast majority of their compatriots do not earn enough to be touched by the child benefit cut.
A couple with two children and a combined income of £55,000 would, to a successful journalist in the capital, seem extremely hard-pressed. In fact, they are richer than 85 per cent of UK households. They do not feel rich, of course, but to compare them with the kind of aspirational working-class voters who were ushered into home ownership by Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago really is stretching it.
There is another kind of solipsism that has been exposed by the row. Many on the right who support austerity in principle are intensely hostile to any cut that wounds their favoured causes. The columnist Matthew D’Ancona calls this “fiscal Nimbyism”, and it is a problem for the government. The spectacle of avowed rightwingers in parliament and the press lamenting the loss of a universal state benefit would amuse ministers were it not for their power to grind the government down with invective and obstinacy.
The policy’s critics are right about one thing. It is historic. Universal child benefit was introduced after the second world war (as the “family allowance”) to give higher earners a stake in the welfare state. Denying it to them could erode their tolerance of redistributive government, as could the gradual withdrawal of the tax credits they are able to claim. Austerity’s long-run implications for the voting habits of the relatively well-to-do remain underestimated.
The subject of state support for people with children should raise an obvious question: what about the childless? But it rarely gets asked. So much government policy and political rhetoric is pitched at families. Of course, we are a democracy and most voters either have children or will do eventually. But our polity is surely meant to be plural as well as majoritarian, with minority perspectives and lifestyles given some voice.
A fifth of British women are childless at the age of 45, a share that rises among graduates. There are plenty of gay people with no interest in having children through adoption or a surrogate mother. Some men, I can report, would sooner volunteer for amateur bomb-disposal work than fatherhood. These people are all part of the modern social swirl. It is politics that has failed to keep up.