I commented yesterday that I thought that the importance of oratory in politics is vastly over-rated. To me, the bigger issue right now is the standard of debate. In that light the recent comments of Bernard Jenkin (who quite coincidentally is one of the worst expenses fiddlers still in the House of Commons) are quite revealing. He branded Nick Clegg’s proposed one-off wealth tax “the politics of envy”.
I won’t dwell too much on the fact that Jenkin is a piffling non-entity and his frontbench political career was a massive non-event. If the man is a ‘grandee’ then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
I’m more interested in how the “debate” proceeded. The argument over Clegg’s proposed tax was so predictable that it could have been scripted in advance (am I being a conspiracy theorist to suggest that it might actually have been choreographed?) Clegg suggests a radical-sounding policy (that seems to be more about internal Lib Dem politics than any genuine belief that his government would ever carry it out, after all Clegg voted for the cut in top rate a few months ago……) to a mixture of snorts of derision and a few cheers. The Chancellor responds coolly without dismissing it out of hand. Distinctly junior Tory MP slaughters it and wheels out the standard Tory response to any proposed tax rise (on them and their mates anyway, increasing VAT didn’t fall into that category oddly), “it’s the politics of envy”.
Why is it “the politics of envy”? How was that the appropriate response to what is only a one-off levy (sadly) designed, supposedly, to cover gaping public spending holes opened by the economic crisis? Did Jenkin have no other weary cliché to hand to respond with? Or did he hear the word “tax” and just instinctively and glibly respond with a standard Tory banality? Is it really the best he could come up with? Can Jenkin explain why it is ok for so many of us to suffer a relative or absolute drop in living standards while the super-rich actually see their incomes grow, even though they are the ones best able to take a hit right now? Also, when are we going to dispense with the fiction that the rich are “wealth creators” for anyone but themselves (and even then it is often done off the backs of others)?
Jenkin attempted to flesh out his highly original thesis in article in the Guardian (and didn’t he write it quickly? It was almost as if it was ready to go as soon as the “row” blew up….) that just trotted out a few tenets of Reaganomics and not a lot else really. He neglected to discuss that a one-off tax on the public utilities by the newly-elected Blair government failed to bring civilisation crashing in around us 15 years ago. And yet Bernie J tells us that taxes are in fact not low enough.
Jenkin claims to be against “wealth taxes” as they are “unworkable” but the truth is he is against high taxation on the rich per se. Not because they are impractical, but because he doesn’t like them and the job of the Conservative Party is to look after the interests of the people who would be affected if we had a fair taxation system in this country. This is about ideology, not economics. Clegg could have announced the most fiendishly brilliant, unavoidable tax proposal ever, one that would have generated huge revenues overnight, and still Jenkin would have branded it “unworkable”. Its fear that these sorts of taxes might actually work that makes many of the rich so nervous and hysterical at the mere suggestion of them.
As Tim Yeo has demonstrated with his tackle-out response to the Heathrow debate earlier on this week, most ‘senior’ Tories are not terribly impressive intellectually. In fact most of them are gormless clowns whose success is down to the failure of the opposition and the free pass they have been given by the media. It tells you something about the debased nature of our political discourse that Bernard Jenkin’s sub sixth-form posturing is taken remotely seriously.