“Boris,” she would begin, in her seductive South African tones, “what exactly is it that these people DO?” Well, I said, they were opinion-formers. They prowled the corridors of power. They sniffed the wind at Westminster and observed the movement of the animals at the watering-holes. They were the intellectual powerhouse of the paper, I said. They wrote the leaders that lit the sparks that rocked the boats that shook the very foundations of the government. They were the Myrmidons, the Imperial Guard, the crack troops of journalism… “Yes, yes,” Brenda said, and her eye skittered down a scrawled expense sheet until she found an offending item. “But why do they need to take so many taxis? Let’s say that they can’t take any more taxis, shall we?”
It must be getting on for 20 years since the first cheques started to arrive in my wife’s bank account, and I shudder to think how much it adds up to. Yes, I shudder, but I quickly do the calculations – and, as of today, and in today’s money, we have received about £47,547.40.
It would be fatuous to claim that this cash has all been spent on essentials for the kids. I can’t pretend that without this dosh they would have been deprived of bootees or SMA milk powder or scented nappy bags. Like many other families we have been able to use this astonishing state largesse – the thick end of fifty grand – on all sorts of discretionary spending. We’re looking at 10 half-decent ski holidays here, or about five luxury safaris. We could have laid down a cellarful of Chateau Lafite, or picked up an Old Master drawing, or a share of a lovely little place in Spain.
I couldn’t tell you how exactly we have blown the cash, but I feel both grateful and appalled to have profited in this way, and a sense of intellectual relief that today, the madness comes to an end. Today, like 820,000 other households, we receive our last philoprogenitive bung from the taxpayer.
I salute this heroic Conservative-led government for at last having had the courage to do the blindingly obvious. I know that some people worry about the perverse impacts of the £50,000 threshold – and yes, I suppose it is an unfairness that a household with, say, two incomes each of £49,000 could continue to get the benefit in full, while a family with a single breadwinner on £60,000 would lose it altogether. But that is the trouble with any reform of a benefits system that now costs £207 billion a year. Any reform will mean at least some losers, and wherever there are losers there will be rage and grief. That is precisely why it has taken so long for any government to grasp the nettle, and that is why benefits have risen by 20 per cent in the past 10 years, while wages have risen by only 10 per cent. Cutting a billion in welfare, as Peter Lilley once said, is cutting a thousand pounds from a million people. It takes political nerve.
What I cannot stomach at any price is the argument – I have a dim feeling that I once came across it in a Polly Toynbee column – that the point of universal benefits is to knit society together; that I and other members of the affluent bourgeoisie will be more inclined to support the welfare state if we are the beneficiaries of welfare.
Let me ask: how in hell does it help me express my feelings of sympathy and solidarity with those on lower incomes if I take money in child benefit that could go on cutting the taxes of the poor and helping them to put bread on the table for their families?
If you had told Sir William Beveridge in 1948 that his successors would have produced a welfare system so irrelevant to the needs of its recipients that relatively well-off families could be creaming off almost fifty grand, from the state, to cover the cost of child care – well, I think he would have said you were round the bend. We don’t need universal child benefit; we need universal tax cuts. Well done, Iain Duncan Smith. Bravo, George Osborne and hooray for David Cameron, and let’s have some more of the same!