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Columnists

Mulled whine

James Cary

Cary

The ugliest thing of 2010 took place during the Conservative Party conference. For some, that'll be no big surprise, although it is not the Tory ministers at fault here. The revolting moment took place after it was suggested, entirely reasonably, that top-rate taxpayers shouldn't receive child benefit.

We must leave aside the colossal administration this will entail, the extra baffling forms that will need to be filled in by those least able to understand them to get small amounts of money, and the resultant fact that this measure will probably save the nation virtually nothing. It is a sad irony that making sure the wrong people don't get the money costs more money than just letting the wrong people have the money.

The savings are not the point here. The ugliness was in the whingeing and whining and moaning from Middle England. (Not to be confused with Middle Earth, which sounds much nicer, orcs, goblins and wraiths included. Middle Earth doesn't have Melanie Phillips.)

We must also note that this child benefit plan was, and still is, a silly arbitrary distinction. Child Benefit used to get round this by being for everyone. But almost all government benefits are means tested or conditional and they have to make silly arbitrary distinctions, otherwise the national economy would be just one huge pyramid scheme of handing each other money with no actual work being done. The Greeks tried that and it ends in tears.

And yet when the plan was floated to withdraw child-benefit from top-rate taxpaying households, the howls could be heard from Hastings to Harrogate. 'We pay taxes too. Shouldn't we get something back?' said the rich (answer: I'm not sure you've understood what taxation is). 'This is penalizing those who work hard' (answer: The richer should pay more tax. Be grateful you're richer and have a nice job). But here is most toxic objection: 'What about the couple next door who both earn just below the top-rate threshold? Their combined income will be much higher than my spouses's top-rate income. And yet they'll get child benefit when they clearly don't need it. They already holiday in Tuscany and shop at Waitrose (at least, their au pair shops at Waitrose for them). Why should the government pay for Petit Filous for Octavian and Persephone while my own children, Oliver and Poppy, have to make do with Ski yoghurts from Sainsbury?'

That, sadly, is the main substance of the objection. Middle England is a nation of envious cry-babies. Sadder still, is that the Tories - and the press - didn't simply laugh at this childish squawking.

Recently, I've been reading a number of the Gospel parables and one theme that comes across from them is a surprising one: that Jesus hates cry-babies. Jesus doesn't hate those in genuine pain or distress, obviously. But look at his response to the man in Luke 12 who says 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.' He does not say 'There, there,'; nor even 'Now you two play nicely.' He tells the man a parable about a rich man who becomes even richer thanks to the good fortune of a bumper crop. He decides to live the good life. And then dies. Jesus gives this man no sympathy, but warns him about being controlled by money and consumed by 'fairness'. This is hardly an isolated parable. There are more, in which people who work all day and others who work for only an hour are paid the same wage. The moral of that story is 'Get over it'.

It's a stark contrast to the painstakingly researched, carefully argued best-seller The Spirit Level in which is it proposed that rich people make the rest of us feel bad. And that that's bad and wrong. It's a nuanced, academic version of the Middle Englanders whining about Child Benefit cuts.

The national debate has moved on, and so The Right lambast The Undeserving Poor who received benefits with no intention of working. And the left remain obsessed with The Undeserving Rich, who receive large bonuses regardless of how hard they work and avoid tax.

And yet Jesus refuses to be drawn in to petty arguments about who deserves what, since we don't get what we deserve in this life, for good and ill. From his parables, Jesus' response to the obsessions of the Left and the Right is not to find ways of 'progressive' forced wealth redistribution so that we all have the same and no-one feels bad. His solution is the surprising non-political message:  'Get over it'.