Storm clouds gathering, MC 2003
Yesterday, I overheard a conversation about the Government's tax and spending proposals. The thrust of the discussion was whether one proposal or another was fair or unfair. Why was the winter fuel allowance applied universally, when child benefits were not? Should the rich pay more, or was it fairer to cut services?
As someone who studied, and is passionate about, ethics, I ought to be pleased. Not long ago all that seemed to matter was your position on the unions or the bosses, the Pound or the Euro, deterrent or disarmament. Fairness wasn't the issue: now everyone, it seems, wants to claim the moral high ground.
Most political eras leave a legacy in the public sentiment that can last longer than their more tangible achievements. The Tories under John Major left us with the concept of prudence - so strong was the idea, that even with three consecutive majorities, New Labour never dared to question it. Whether that was good or bad is beside the point - what matters, is that it constrained their ambitions, and particularly the way they positioned their policies.
Of course, that's not how it turned out. We've ended up with the highest ever debt, following one of the longest periods of economic growth - that's not the way most of us understand the term prudent. And even if we allow for factors outside the Government's control you'd still have to question their approach to, say, the housing boom, public debt and the affordability of services.
I don't want to take political sides here (frankly, I suspect the Tories would have done much the same) - my point is that as prudence became a catch phrase that was bandied about so often we forgot what it really meant. And I fear the same over our evangelical conversion to fairness.
Almost every use of the term I read last week was questionable. It isn't necessarily fair that the rich should pay more to reduce the deficit; nor is it necessarily fair that we cut services on a broadly equal basis; nor is necessarily fair to apply a means test for child benefit; and it certainly isn't fair to raise the pension age in an arbitrary way or to change the rules for company carbon taxation.
In truth, I don't envy the Government's task. Personally, I'd have pushed harder in some areas and eased off in others, but then we all have our preferences. The fact is, we face a huge and complex problem and by definition there is no easy answer. As they stand, I think the measures are a reasonably pragmatic solution to what is frankly, a bloody mess.
And you know, I'm fine with that. Sometimes the most appropriate response is to act firmly, even if it is less than perfect. I can't say I'm happy about the cuts and I deeply resent the imprudence that got us to where we are, but I'm prepared to give it a go. All I ask is one little thing.
Don't insult my intelligence by claiming it is fair.