George Osborne claims that his 'Emergency Budget' is “unavoidable” and “fair”. It is neither. Much has been written about the partiality and opportunism of the first epithet and the mendacity of the second. But perhaps the most significant question has been posed by one of the clauses in Church Action on Poverty's Fairness Test: “Are people contributing tax proportionate to their ability to pay?”
During my adult life, there has been virtually no national moral conversation about progressive taxation. Progressive people have permitted their approach to be dictated entirely by the ideological Right. In default of a socially responsible voice making the case for income tax, it is now almost universally perceived as a burden to be avoided or evaded. Many libertarians delight in presenting it as something approaching an insult to personal liberty. An increasingly consumerist and individualist culture which tends towards indignation at anything it finds personally inconvenient, provides a receptive audience.
Because Labour has lacked the moral courage to challenge such a distorted and solipsistic view, it has always been on the back foot in responding to the Tory policy of tax cutting. Instead of presenting an unashamedly different and ethical approach to the funding of the services of a civilised democracy, it has squirmed and equivocated to its own detriment and, worse, to that of the moral vision of successive generations of tax payers. There are now two post-war generations who no longer understand income tax as being the subscription fee to the decent society.
Tax justice – and therefore social justice - requires a radical overhaul of the present system. The proposal to (eventually) raise the point at which income tax begins to £10,000 is inadequate. Those earning less than £15,000 should be taken out of income tax altogether and there should be a far more graduated scale of liability, rising incrementally to the point where excessive salaries are capped by a 100 per cent rate.
The failure to make the case for fair and redistributive taxation has laid Labour open to accusations of 'stealth taxes'. This has stoked resentment and contributed to popular disillusion. The party which should have taken a moral stand against self-interest and greed, and for equality and justice, has betrayed those who need it the most.
The widespread public anger at the bonus culture and the massive inequality of which it is both symptom and contributing cause, has provided the most fertile ground we are ever likely to see for initiating that moral conversation from which many progressives have shrunk for so long. Osborne's preferred ratio of 80 per cent cuts to 20 per cent tax increases, together with the profoundly regressive increase in VAT, opens the door for Labour to mount a radical challenge to a mean and callous budget and, for the longer term, to the inevitable unfairness and division of a political culture afraid to challenge and reshape our common thinking on the relationship between input and outcomes.
Osborne has said “ I did not come into politics to raise taxes. I came into politics to do the best for the country”. That he depicts these as mutually exclusive indicates the moral impoverishment of our politics.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger