The class war rumbles on, but we need to lift up our eyes and remind ourselves that universalism is a crucial element in any victory
Six out of ten people think the rich should be taxed more and the poor taxed less. Or even more than that, six out of ten are even willing to back the Lib Dems raising tax on the rich. What it does is make clear (as anyone who followed any real analysis of public opinion might know) is that the Blairite certainty that raising public income from those most able to pay was simply abhorrent to ‘the people’ was rubbish. Blair was in the business of ‘creating reality’ and was part of a movement that was determined to make us believe that a different Britain was different because, broadly, the people had the Britain they wanted. Class war was over, people wanted decent public services but not as much as they wanted their retail-mad existence.
This is not what the evidence showed. Throughout the 1990s an opinion poll kept asking a sort-of hangover question from the 1960s about whether people thought there was a class war going on in Britain. During the pinnacle of ‘we’re all middle class now’ in fact the response rate from people saying yes was not only rising but rising to its highest level. A majority of people in Britain thought there was a class war (perpetrated by the rich on the poor mainly), and yet this was not only ignored, the very idea or concept was totally and utterly expunged from public debate by every mainstream politicians and every mainstream political party. Quite literally, if we don’t admit the war is happening we can just ignore it.
This is not pointless agitprop or knee-jerk Marxist rhetoric. It is an important element of understanding contemporary society. In fact people are not stupid and do realise that the powerful manipulate the rules to benefit themselves, the price usually being paid by the wider population. It is all those low-tax, pro-rich, pro-globalisation, anti-civil liberties stances which swept all before them. Indeed, most people on the left got dispirited and believed a lot of this – no-one is immune to the onslaught of the propaganda machine which simply disappears unfortunate views or seems to transform them into something else (every anti-globalisation protested was a mindless anarchist, right up until everyone realised they had been right all along, at which point we went back to pretending they hadn’t been warning us).
So we shouldn’t for a second accept the ‘Rooney Argument’ – that we actually all now believe that the rich are like us but a bit better and so deserve what they have. It is not true and has never been wholly true. But the second half of the poll shows a different picture. Here Blair and Thatcher have won. At the same time 60 per cent of people want the rich taxed, 61 per cent think it is a good idea to take child benefit away from the wealthy. Here we see the case for dismantling universalism making giant strides. The idea that creating a fair and equal society is best achieved by breaking up national institutions and practices and setting us all against each other always seemed odd. But it is wrongly accepted as the way forward by too many people.
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Can ever there have been a more humane or civilised way of describing a society? How did we allow this most noble of ideas to be dragged through the dirt, first by Thatcher, then by Blair. If there is rebalancing to be done we should be taking more according to ability, not giving less because of a perceived lack of need.
So take heart in the knowledge that claims the left lost the class war are wrong. Then realise that we need to take the hostility to the abuse of power and wealth and transform it into something positive that can enrich society. That, for me, means the dignity of universalism.