Where will the big cuts fall?
Ken Clarkeâ€™s comment that â€˜the middle classes are unaware of the scale of the government spending cuts that will hit them this yearâ€™ has, not for the first time in his career, set off a bit of a political storm. Itâ€™s true that in order to make cuts of the order necessary to close the structural deficit by 2015, thereâ€™ll have to be painful decisions taken. Whatâ€™s interesting is his focus on the middle class in his comments.
If thereâ€™s been a theme about the recent protests against the cuts or sell-offs, itâ€™s that theyâ€™ve been led by the middle classes (who can be much more vocal and persistent than lower income groups when their interests are challenged). If Clarke is right, then the skirmishes over relatively minor issues like libraries and woodland are just a foretaste of the battles to come.
The governmentâ€™s big spending items are defence, education, health, and welfare / pensions – so where might the axe fall, and which areas would particularly affect the middle classes? Most of these departmentsâ€™ spending is either class-neutral or targeted more at the lower income brackets, so itâ€™s difficult to see many obvious big cost items that could easily be dispensed with and where the middle class would bear the brunt – but the use of the word â€˜cutsâ€™ may be misleading.
What might be the solution is that rather than services ceasing, it will be funding methods that change. Tuition fees could easily be the prototype here, with a significant increase in the number of services provided at much closer to market cost for those who can afford them. Likewise, the changes to Child Benefit might presage other, similar changes to the welfare and benefits system whereby thereâ€™s a drastic scaling back of the benefits and tax credits that the middle classes receive.
Whether that would extend to pensioners will be an interesting question. Why a millionaire pensioner should receive free bus travel when a single mother on minimum wage or a sixth form student from a low-income family have to pay full fare is the sort of question which will be asked increasingly frequently if thereâ€™s a greater move to means testing.
How the politics will pan out will depend predominantly on whether the cuts are seen are fair, which itself will be influenced to a large extent by the ability of the political parties and representatives of the affected groups to put their case across, and of their access to the media. After all, some significant cuts such as the Child Benefit reforms went though without all that much fuss (albeit that they havenâ€™t come into force yet), whereas some others, involving much smaller amounts, have caused far more.
What is not proposed to be cut will also have a bearing on how fair the public see the collection of that which is. It probably boils down to a consideration of whether something is believed to be necessary or deserved. The degree of perceived enthusiasm from the government for the cuts will also have a bearing. If those being affected believe the government is making a necessity out of the virtues of a smaller state, reduced dependency or expectation, without first accepting that they are indeed virtues, the government will be in for a very rocky time. Yet the battle is there to be won. Itâ€™s the middle class who tend to be most active in joining and running charities, filling in the gaps left by the state. They are – or could be – the backbone of the Big Society.
Who wins that argument will go a long way to settling the philosophical basis on which the country is run for the next decade or more – and will probably bag two general elections into the bargain. High stakes indeed.