Somewhere in her political diaries, Barbara Castle recounts a conversation she has in the 1970s with the Labour Party’s Director of Research. The venue is the platform of Labour Conference in Blackpool and their very private discussion centres on the cumulative impact on public spending that would be result of accepting so many delegate resolutions – all demanding ever more outlay on good causes. With silent headshakes, they both agree that the demands, taken in total and with each being perfectly worthy, are unsustainable. The implication at work is that there was just no moral or intellectual space in which to regulate and prioritise state spending. A destructive over-reach (for wannabe radicals) was consequently inevitable.
Now, let’s hereby affirm that the level of tax raised in a country like the UK is too low.
We offer this as a general proposition which in its essence predates the onset of Coronavirus and will continue to pertain once the status quo ante within the public finances is resumed. Fans of the OECD’s scholarly papers on tax revenues qua proportion of GDP will be aware that the OECD average is ca 33.8% – not so far, as it happens, from the prevailing figure for Britain. But in some countries – the Scandinavian, for example – the tax-GDP ratio can stretch over 40%. (Traditionally, the figure for the USA falls well below 30%).
The leads us to this fantasy question. Imagine that a sardonic and capricious jove somehow informs you that you are about to have a heart attack, one that could be fatal. However, you are allowed to travel (yes, it’s a fantasy…) to any capital city on earth and, as it were, have your heart attack there on a street near the centre. Which city do you pick? Washington DC? London? Stockholm?
Remember you will be a stranger in them there parts, you will slump in the street and you will thus be at the mercy of the goodwill of others plus the quality of local public health services.
Well, if you do not pick Stockholm you have a dicky noddle as well as a dicky ticker. For such are the often randomly distributed but very real human benefits of a high-tax/high-spend environment. If you must have trouble, have it where the state is big.
Now consider this. Just as the last century was turning into this one, the average price of a British home was ca £85,000. Some 18 years later, much interim macro-vicissitude notwithstanding, the average price had risen to ca £228,000. So, say you were a 40 year old home-owner in the year 2000 and you are over 60 now and still live in the same spot…. the chances are that your asset portfolio has swollen very agreeably under your carpet. Should the common taxpayer be invited to subsidise your care needs to any serious extent over the next 20 years? One begins to ask.
By 2021, we notice, the average home price in the UK had risen to ca £270k.
There is no naivety. Median pay for full-time employees is, as we write, ca £31/32k per annum. But millions in the workplace financially under-perform against this not-all-that-high figure. Just over 9 million people are, meanwhile, living with “absolutely low incomes” and those pensioners exclusively dependent on state support and with – whether owned or not – poor quality houses in under-resourced neighbourhoods face, every day, a grimly uncertain future. And, of course, inflation has devoured quite a bit of the asset accumulation notionally made over the last twenty years. As Mario Cuomo said once in a famous speech, whatever the gains made to our society, a relative few have shared fully in the splendour and glory. In one six-month period in 2021, for instance, the Trussell Trust gave nearly one million food parcels to desperate people in Britain.
For so many families, the Friday-night household budget discussion must be absolute hell.
For that very reason, we are here to argue that there should be no National Care Service in the UK (or in any of its nations), of a kind to mimic the essence of the NHS.
For such a proposal will let too many middle-class people – those with accumulated reserved and resources – off a big hook. If a man stumbles to the ground in the street as a result of a heart attack, that man deserves the immediate assistance of a national healthcare service, free at the point of need. If a man owns six buy-to-let properties in Manchester plus a personal dwelling house in Holland Park then that man should enjoy highly constricted support from the government or local authority as his social care needs come, if they come at all, to light.
Even high tax / high welfare societies have to make choices and cannot eliminate risk for everyone. And the needs of those already financially disadvantaged must surely come first. HMG figures confirm that average pensioner income in the UK is – after housing costs – less than £18k per annum; the savings of such people should just not be taxed and the care that they need, when they need it, should be made available by a professional class who do not tolerate minimum wages.
Above all, we must de-sentimentalise septuagenarian home-ownership and inheritance.
Already, the tax authorities in, for instance, Wales deem that at least some 20,000 properties there are second homes. Nobody here on this page is suggesting that such a scale of dual or multiple ownership is per se a bad thing; let a thousand bank-holiday hot-tubs bloom! But it should be a well understood and well anticipated feature of ageing that cashing-out, downsizing and – as we shall shortly argue – ruralizing is collectively a good thing, an action which can on its own relieve financial pressures on the state as well as allowing for and indeed encouraging good personal choices long before a personal care need has become critical.
Can there be any doubt, meanwhile, that big cities are becoming ever less congenial for the over-70s?
Low-traffic neighbourhoods have their fans as does The 15 Minute City, an idea which deprecates ad hoc travel / commuting and prefers all household needs (via medics, dentists, restauranteurs, yoga instructors, booksellers, pharmacists…) to be met within a 15 minute walk or cycle. Such ideas are, one has to conclude, becoming majoritarian across Europe and they favour the super able-bodied and the super tech-literate. No country for old men or women or for that matter old trans folk. Long in city pent? Take your longevity to the hills, the fields, the villages, the provinces. Evade the metropolis – it is not for the likes of the grey old you anymore.