It is one of David Cameron’s favourite coalition catchphrases. Tomas Christmas wants to know if it is true.
We are all in this together. Or are we? The cuts have been clouded by coalition rhetoric, assuring us that the escape from this deficit is going to be equally gruelling for everyone. There are several reasons why I’ve never found this convincing. It’s not just the fact that the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that the cuts would hit the poorest hardest, or the regressive VAT increase, or the hard-hitting rise in tuition fees. In fact, it isn’t really about these cuts or this coalition. The problems run a lot deeper.
When the new cabinet was appointed in May, no fewer than 18 of the 23 members were revealed to be millionaires by the Sunday Times rich list. A mere 15 of them went to university at either Oxford or Cambridge. Their backgrounds in secondary school education are more difficult to present statistically due to people moving schools and the existence of grammar and direct grant grammar schools. However, an undoubtedly noteworthy point is that less than a quarter of cabinet members attended non-selective state comprehensives.
The paragraph above isn’t meant to be criticising these cabinet members. It’s not wrong to be a millionaire. It’s not wrong to have gone to a top university. In fact, the determination, ambition and intelligence required to achieve these things is the reason that they are well suited to holding a position of power. They have taken the opportunities that they have been given to get to the top of their field. Well done to them. But there are others who never had the opportunities.
For many of the cabinet members their future would have looked pretty rosy from a young age; a well off family, a high standard of living, and a place at a high quality, expensive school. I’m not saying that this is a guarantee of success; they would still have had to work hard and overcome problems, but let’s face it, they always had a pretty good chance of doing well.
How would some of these people have fared if they had have been brought up in a different environment? How would they have coped with a broken family, pressure to turn to crime and drug abuse, an underperforming school where intelligent kids are mocked and bullied? Would they still have ended up where they are now? It’s unlikely.
Fairness is a concept which underpins the plans and aspirations of most politicians. They all love to talk the talk about a fair society. Policies are introduced in an attempt to make things better. But things simply aren’t fair enough.
In a society where people seem to be increasingly cynical and apathetic (particularly towards politicians) any radical and risky policies with the potential to make a significant difference may well be put down before they can gain any traction. However, if politicians campaigned passionately to make a difference to these inequalities, they might restore some respect and credibility. How can they make things fairer? One idea which I like in principle is the introduction of 100% inheritance tax. This leaves people on a more level playing field, meaning that everyone has to work to achieve a high standard of living and cannot simply rely on the wealth of their parents. This wouldn’t be easy to implement; people would be upset that they cannot pass their wealth on and would no doubt try to find ways around the inheritance tax. There would also need to be variations for exceptional circumstances such as children orphaned before they are old enough to work for themselves. There would be a number of issues that would need to be addressed; however, I’m sure that parliament could find a way to make it work if they wanted to (although for a cabinet of millionaires there isn’t much incentive for them to do this on a personal level!)
However, the real problem is education. The existence of private and independent schools tends to give children from richer families a head start. Bursaries and scholarships are helping the situation, certainly, but the fact remains that while some children are all but guaranteed a place at Eton from birth, others are destined to go to a poor quality state school. (Of course there are many fantastic state schools, but in some areas a good education is hard to come by.) There needs to be less disparity between the best and worst schools in the country. Ideally, I’d like to see a country where all schools are state schools of a similar standard, giving equal opportunities to all. Wishful thinking perhaps. Earlier I briefly mentioned direct grant grammar schools, which were phased out during the 1970s. These schools, although selective, were funded partly through the state and partly through private fees – those who can afford to pay for education contribute to the fees, those who cannot attend for free, and their costs are covered by the state. I think the idea, or something similar to it, (perhaps without the selective aspect), is worth revisiting. Children could receive the same education regardless of the success or otherwise of their parents. For me, that is fairness.
Our society in Britain is no disaster. Compared with much of the rest of the world, young people in Britain, from all backgrounds, have some sort of chance of making something of themselves. But there’s still a lot more that can be done. I think that these cabinet members, who have had such fortunate upbringings, have a responsibility to address inequality of opportunity and ensure that more people can have the same chances that they had. If they are to convince people that we are all in this together, the government needs to do something to level the playing field for generations to come.