This is an extract from an article I have recently written, I have given it the title Fairness – The Ben Elton Spectrum;
DOES a working household with an autistic son on £114 per week housing benefit deserve to have their benefits cut? Does an investment banker who works 60+ hours a week deserve to give half their earnings away in tax? It is all about perspectives and it is all about fairness. The left call it equality, the right meritocracy; whatever you call it, fairness seems hard to define.
I have followed with interest the recent debates around fairness, welfare and political agendas and have coined the phrase “The Ben Elton Spectrum”, or the “BES” to examine the idea of fairness. The spectrum can be used to describe people who start out on the left and, as they become wealthier, move towards the right and become firmly ensconced in the establishment. Ben Elton, who has the honour of sharing his name with my new political term, was once viewed as left-wing but seems to have eschewed these values for a more centrist standpoint – his travelling to the right of the spectrum appears to have a direct correlation to his success and subsequent wealth. In France, Gerard Depardieu has made a similar journey in protest of the socialist government’s tax rate.
Maybe in simple terms this travel to the right is to do with the desire to protect their own wealth as they feel they have worked hard, paid their “fair share” of taxes and therefore deserve to keep more of it. But are things as simple as this? Should what we pay in tax be able to be drawn back out in proportionate rights and benefits; is that the point of a fair society? Or is a society only as strong as its weakest member?
Of course the “BES” works in the other direction as well, as people move from the right towards the left after they have become wealthy and successful. The film director Oliver Stone is a case in point; a Vietnam War veteran, raised a Republican but recently described by The Observer as “one of the few committed men of the left working in mainstream American cinema”. Bill Gates and Stephen King seem to link fairness to an even distribution of wealth and see the issues of wealth versus poverty as moral ones. However wealthy they become, they always remember the less well off and see it as a moral obligation to put back more than their “fair share” to help those who cannot help themselves.
Recently I was having a conversation with someone I know quite well, who happens to be on the right end of the “BES” discussing the coalition’s “Bedroom Tax”. In justification of this policy he said: “The underlying objective of the policy is, I believe, to create a framework, which encourages freedom and individual choices along with responsibility for oneself rather than simply relying upon others.” My first reaction to this statement was a combination of being impressed, disturbed and thinking that this guy should sign up to be a politician straight away, as this is a piece of rhetoric that Joseph Goebbels would be proud of.
As I tried to cut through the rhetoric I realised the idea that a handful of people abusing the benefits system means everyone in a similar position must automatically be doing the same thing is laughable. People who earn millions of pounds abuse the system, by exploiting barely legal, and certainly immoral, tax loopholes. Well heeled politicians abuse the system by fiddling their expenses. But because the people in this section of society have status and wealth there is no broad and generalised condemnation. Do all very rich people dodge tax? Of course not. It should then be obvious that all people who are legally and through absolute necessity claiming benefits are not just relying on others and “scrounging”.
Another “fact” worth clearing up is that being on benefits does not mean you are unemployed. This is just another scandalous lie perpetuated by the government and its allies in the right-wing press. We have seen further misdirection by Iain Duncan Smith and co with the bracketing of all benefits as one and the same; therefore disabled people, people who claim in work benefits, and people who claim child benefit (prior to the income cap, this was everyone in the country with a child) are scamming the system in some way. Are the NHS and the state pension not benefits of the welfare state? And if so should all the users and claimers of these benefits not also be bracketed in with the “scammers” and “scroungers” and become the targets of mindless hate in the media, political speeches and the world of social media?
What is equally dubious is portraying all unemployed people as not wanting work or having a choice over their working circumstances. There are so many complexities and factors in each individual story and to bracket all these different sections of society as lazy or claiming what they don’t deserve is about as far away from the notion of freedom or fairness as you can get. These simple-minded arguments are divisive and serve to polarise society.
My rhetoric quoting friend has recently been keen to elicit from me the fact that I am on the left end of the BES. I am not a card carrying member of any party but admit I am certainly on the left end of the spectrum. These principles, though, are not guided by how much money I earn or any sense that “the state” owes me. It is something more profound, guided by fairness; a word that I said earlier was hard to define in this context. Sadly the truth is that fairness should be easy to define; fairness means that all people are equal.
We should all have a roof over our heads, (something we can’t say about our society currently), we should all have enough food to eat, (something we can’t say about our society currently), and we shouldn’t condemn huge sections of society through ignorance and greed (something we can’t say about our society currently). Of course, some people on the right of the BES care for the vulnerable or give to charity in time and money and that is the inherent danger with the rhetoric, spin and lies being used by the current government. By simplifying the dialogue in the way they do, by turning the term “benefit” into a dirty word, the current administration are demonising large sections of society and creating bitter divides. This ultimately leads to a society that feels unfair as, regardless of what part of the spectrum you belong to, you end up feeling hard done by. This deflects from the real issues in our society, like poverty, equality and keeping an eye on what our politicians are really up to – you may have noticed that the Leveson enquiry and the expenses scandal seem forgotten now.
We must be careful when we enter into debates about fairness, as the issues are not as black and white as the politicians would have you believe. The issues around fairness and welfare are always more complex and what is more important than attributing blame to one another is remembering tolerance, peace and understanding.