Over the past week there has been an interesting development in Britain. The announcement by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, that child benefits would be withdrawn from taxpayers on the higher tax rate drew howls of anger from all sorts of quarters. Many of them won’t have mattered much to the Conservatives, but the negative reaction from some of their own members was a different matter – and we shall have to wait and see whether the whole thing materialises. What makes it interesting, however, is that if this particular plan fails, it will be because the middle classes object to losing this little gift from the government. For once there is none of this guff about universal benefits being needed to protect the poor: here it is quite clear that it is a hot potato because the rich don’t want to lose their candy.
If political backbone is needed here, it will be even more in demand when Lord Browne issues his recommendations about higher education funding and tuition fees this week. Already opponents of fees are gearing up for a fight, and some of them may be intending to target their anger at the Liberal Democrats in particular, who not that long ago promised to abolish tuition fees. But it should be clear that no quality system of higher education, and no equitable system to secure participation by the disadvantaged, can be created and maintained without tuition fees for those who can afford them.
I was interested last week to hear from a number of liberal and leftwing commentators about universal benefits in the light of the Tory party conference. Some of them still claim that universal benefits are needed to secure an equal society. I would strongly argue that the conditions that rightly produced the British welfare state in the 1940s have long gone, and that universality has long ceased to be a tool for re-engineering society, but has become a method of subsidising wealth. It no longer makes sense. And it is weird that it is the Tories that may, just may, grasp this nettle.