Enough to tax the patience of a saint

If George Osborne's plan to reform inheritance tax is the Tories' big idea, politics is dead and buried before the election campaign even begins.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Inheritance tax, inheritance tax, inheritance tax. If the coverage of the Conservative Party conference is to be believed, that is to be the big issue in UK politics in the run-up to the expected autumn election. It is enough to tax the patience of a saint – or indeed, of anybody who believes that politics ought to be a contest to decide the big questions facing our society.

Taxation is always the most miserable issue in politics. We all know, after Benjamin Franklin, that nothing is certain except death and taxes. But we should also know by now that nothing is so deadly dull a political issue as the minutiae of taxation rates. The way that tax took over as the number one issue in Britain from the 1980s was a telling sign of the death of political life. But this is even worse.

Fifteen years ago, when Tory prime minister John Major beat Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in what was arguably the most uninspiring election in British political history, the focus was on income tax. That symbolised the narrowing of the political terrain to a petty issue of the pennies in your pocket. Instead of competing visions of the Good Society, a battle over the commanding heights of the economy or fundamental freedoms, we were offered a disagreement among accountants over whether there should be tuppence on or off the basic rate of income tax.

(Which was why, incidentally, the magazine that I edited at the time, Living Marxism, went against the tide of opinion and correctly predicted that the discredited Major would still beat Kinnock – because the avowedly tax-cutting Tories were offering blatant self-interest, as against the Labour Party’s ‘programme’ of self-interest with a little bit of altruism thrown in.)

Now, remarkably, the taxation debate has shrunk to narrower margins still. It is no longer even about income tax, which at least touches upon bigger issues of how society distributes the wealth created by the majority of people. Now we are supposed to be excited (or ‘electrified’ as reports claim the Conservative conference was) by proposals to reform the system of inheritance tax. Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, apparently want to abolish inheritance tax for estates worth less than £1million – currently it is payable if you leave more than £300,000.

Inheritance tax is a dusty financial measure that, until fairly recently, would only have concerned a relative handful of upper-class families. It has come to affect more people purely because of the big rises in UK property prices over the past decade. In other words, these are taxes that bear no relation to the production of real wealth, and would be largely irrelevant were it not for the peculiarities of the contemporary property market. It is a tax on paper assets, on dead money that can disappear as swiftly as Northern Rock’s share price. And yet this is apparently the issue on which the Conservatives now pin their hopes of changing society.

The problem this points to is not, as some on the old left claim, that reforming inheritance tax means endorsing ‘inherited class privilege’. There are still issues to do with that in British society – start with the question of monarchy and work your way down. But you hardly have to be a member of society’s social elite to own (or at least to ‘own’ a mortgage on) a property valued at more than £300,000 today. If the Conservatives or New Labour want to fiddle with the inherited finances of the middle classes, I am not going to get too excited about it either way in its own terms.

No, the big problem is what the elevation of these marginal financial issues reveals about the decline of public debate in Britain. And in particular, the centrality of property prices to just about everything in economic and political life today. Property prices are ear-bleedingly boring enough subjects of discussion in the pub or at the dinner table. But when property prices – or worse, the rate of tax your descendants might one day pay on the price of your property – become the focus for an election campaign, it is almost enough to make some of us lose the will to live and hand over the deeds now.

As often discussed on spiked, there are no shortage of real issues to debate in relation to housing and property (see spiked‘s Architecture and planning page for more). Most importantly, there is a crying need to relax restrictions on development and invest in a mass house-building programme to meet the shortage. But there has been little mention of any such ‘controversial’ issues as building more homes on the green belt at the Conservative conference. Instead, they want us to be inspired by promises to ease inheritance tax and give a leg-up to first-time buyers, all of which should help to distort further the housing sector. It’s a case of ‘never mind the real housing shortage, feel the paper property boom’ – at least as long as it lasts.

So we arrive at the end of a party conference season that has confirmed the extent to which politics in the UK has slid into a stodgy mush. A confusing, rootless and arbitrary state of affairs where the Tories make headlines with token calls to ‘Tax the rich!’ while the Labour prime minister issues a rallying call of ‘British jobs for British workers’.

The instability is clearest with the Conservatives, a party so anchored by British traditions that it finds it hardest to come to terms with the end of the old set-up based on the politics of left and right, and the decline of the accepted ‘British values’ and British establishment for which the Tories once stood.

In a revealing interview with The Times (London), Lord Norman Tebbit – once Margaret Thatcher’s hatchet man and now almost the last public champion of traditional Toryism – gives an insight into one difference between politics 20 years ago, when Thatcher was ‘so secure in her ideas’, and in today’s principles-lite climate: ‘If you turned on the telly in the morning and something had happened, in Margaret’s government – unlike Blair’s – you wouldn’t have to wonder what she made of it because there was a framework.’

In describing the problems of dreaming up policies without the guiding light of Politics with a capital P, he might just as easily have been talking about Cameron as Blair – as Emily Hill examines elsewhere on spiked today. The Conservative leader now faces the prospect of an election having lost the few superficial things he had going for him – such as the image of New Labour as old and tired under Blair, and the fickle favour of the media, which has (for now at least) switched to the ‘new’ New Labour of Gordon Brown.

But as the pre-election campaign begins in earnest, the real question left hanging by this party conference season remains the one that I posed here last week. Not when will the poll be, but WHAT will it be about? What political choices will we be offered by parties whose rhetorical contest to show who is keenest on being green, or toughest on foreigners and the causes of foreigners, cannot disguise the emptying out of genuine debate?

‘Aspiration’ was identified by keen observers as a buzzword at both the Labour and Conservative conferences this year. And giving people something to aspire to is, well, a fine aspiration for any political leader. But in the twenty-first century, our society’s ‘aspirations’ surely ought to mean something more substantial than ‘aspiring to see house prices go up’ so that we can leave a tax-free hand-out to our kids.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large. He is speaking at the session The new heresies at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume asked, ‘What would an autumn election be about?’. Emily Hill took a look at the 2007 Conservative Party Conference. Rob Lyons analysed what David Cameron’s Ealing comedy told us about British politics. David Chandler discussed Cameron’s trip to Rwanda. Neil Davenport asked why Cameron spent so much time apologising for previous Tory policy. Or read more at: spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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