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As the nation’s attention is increasingly focused on the plight of people in flood-affected areas, one strand of political opinion, usually quite vocal, has remained noticeably silent. Advocates of low tax and low public spending have had little to say faced with a situation which demands a huge response from the full range of public services.
Organisations like The Taxpayers Alliance (TPA), which never usually misses an opportunity to appear in the media, and boasts of being highly influential on government policy, has no reference to the floods on their website. The TPA has issued only two press releases so far this year, one on 6 January urging George Osborne to make further spending cuts. On 7 February however, as Somerset residents grew ever more desperate, Twitter revealed that the TPA was out campaigning on an issue which affects the South West. Members were "fighting for a cut in Cider Tax".
As for UKIP, its policies are in a state of flux since its 2010 manifesto was recently disowned by Nigel Farage, and dismissed as ‘almost 500 pages of junk’ by new Head of Policy Tim Aker. A discussion paper by Godfrey Bloom on the UKIP website asserts, ‘Taxation needs to be drastically reduced but only alongside equally drastic cuts in public spending’. A flat rate tax of 25 per cent is proposed as fair: if implemented this would mean a big tax cut for the wealthy. UKIP’s suggestion as to what could be done for flood victims is to redirect money from the overseas aid budget.
Meanwhile, the Environment Agency (EA) became a political scapegoat, as having first slashed its budget the government proceeded to blame it for the floods. On 2 January, before the full force of the storms hit, the Telegraph reported ‘Officials working on flood risk management will be sacked as Environment Agency (EA) sheds about 15 per cent of its workforce to save money, potentially placing ability to cope with floods at risk’.
As the waters rose on the Somerset Levels, local Conservative MP Iain Liddell Grainger resorted to childish personal abuse of the EA head Lord Smith, despite having been a keen supporter of spending cuts and having http://www.bathchronicle.co.uk/Flood-scheme-cuts-says-West-MP/story-1133...
opposed a flood prevention scheme on grounds of cost in 2010. Lord Smith eventually responded, writing, "It's not only the overall allocation for flood defence work that limits what we can do. There is also a limit on the amount we can contribute to any individual scheme, determined by a benefit-to-cost rule imposed on us by the Treasury. Take, for example, the highly visible issue of the dredging of the rivers on the Somerset Levels. Last year, after the 2012 floods, we recognised the local view that taking silt out of the two main rivers would help to carry water away faster after a flood.
The Environment Agency put £400,000 on the table to help with that work – the maximum amount the Treasury rules allowed us to do. The additional funds from other sources that would be needed didn't come in."
We are three years in to a programme of public spending cuts. The cuts were ostensibly justified by the need to reduce the deficit, but the philosophy of the politicians who dominate the Coalition is intrinsically hostile to public spending and in favour of low taxes. For them, the financial crisis provided the opportunity to implement cuts they would have wished to make in any case. They advised that we would have to "do more with less", but it is difficult to see how we can face the increasing challenges of climate change and extreme weather events with a shrinking public sector.
Doing more with less has already proved impossible in many areas, and those who suffer the consequences are usually the weakest and most vulnerable. Take just one example, that of adult social care. We have now reached a situation where ‘almost 40 per cent of those who would have had some help with basic tasks such as washing and dressing less than a decade ago are now left to fend for themselves’. This quietly rising tide of human misery, unlike the floods, is virtually invisible, but is no less serious for the people affected. No politician would openly call for care to be removed from sick and elderly people, but they openly advocate policies which inevitably lead to this.
It is perfectly legitimate for people to argue for low taxes and low public spending, but they should in fairness be much clearer about what this would mean for society in practice. When a politician makes a spending promise they are almost always asked where they will get the money from, or if they will raise taxes. In future, politicians who advocate lower taxes or spending cuts should be obliged to spell out much more clearly just what the consequences will be. Taxation is the price we pay for a civilised society, and those who object to paying tax should be clear just what part of that civilised society they wish to forego, and what areas of the country or sections of the population they are prepared to abandon.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet