Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Scrapping Trident would have been the real 'tough choice'

It's testament to the fact that Jeremy Paxman is perfectly capable of facilitating an illuminating discussion - on the rare occasions when he can temper his belligerence - that on Monday's Newsnight there was a very interesting philosophical exchange between Labour MP John Mann and "Red Tory" Phillip Blonde on the case for means-testing benefits that are currently universal. I must admit this is an issue that hurts my head slightly - on the face of it, paying child benefit to millionaires can scarcely be seen as redistributive, and Mann's defence of universality on the basis that middle class people "need to have a stake in the welfare state" didn't seem terribly convincing. He was probably on stronger ground with the "thin end of the wedge" argument, ie. that once the principle of universality is abandoned, the range of people eligible to receive child benefit would gradually be squeezed, until eventually those genuinely in need are affected.

However, that debate is now purely academic, as George Osborne surprised many by not introducing means-tests for child benefit in his Budget, instead choosing to claw the money back through a freeze in the benefit across the board. Clearly, the new Chancellor's notion of us "all being in it together" is that both rich and poor must suffer an equal hit in absolute terms, and it doesn't take a genius to work out which group will be suffering a greater proportionate loss of income as a result. It's essentially the Poll Tax philosophy, albeit marginally better disguised. Mark Easton's report on the BBC Ten O'Clock News confirmed that the bottom in society will be taking a bigger hit than anyone other than the very richest - "fairness is in the eye of the beholder," he wryly observed.

So much for 'tough choices' across the board, then - there can hardly be an easier choice for a Tory Chancellor than to hit the vulnerable sections of society who would never dream of voting Conservative anyway. Which brings me on to the choice the Tories regard (for some reason) as so tough that it's unthinkable even to confront the issue : Trident. All I can do is weep in despair every time a journalist points out to the SNP that cutting Trident would "only" save £3 billion this year. OK, but how much does the child benefit freeze save annually? How much does the penny-pinching at Stonehenge save, even as a one-off? And yet those cuts were deemed utterly essential - while the future of Trident isn't even up for discussion.

Whenever I've managed to get defenders of Trident to engage honestly about their motivations, it seems to boil down to this - "yeah, probably we don't really need it, but somehow it makes me feel better about our status as a country, so I'll always support it". And yet these are the self-same people who would denounce the proper protection of jobs and welfare spending as "grossly irresponsible at a time of crisis". Giving up on a hugely expensive status-symbol (that in truth was fairly superfluous to this country's defence even at the height of the Cold War) to ease the burden on the poorest should be the easiest choice in the world. If for purely psychological reasons it doesn't seem quite so easy for our new masters, then no problem - they talk about "tough choices", so let's start with that one.

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