When I returned last weekend to this blessed plot, this England, from what (as far as I am concerned) is that other Eden, demi-paradise which is France, I had for a whole week been cut off from one of my many addictions: the media in all their forms. But it had all seemed at the time wonderfully restful: not cold turkey at all. All the same, as I came through the tunnel sous la manche, I found that I was looking forward to the English papers for the usual entirely pleasurable reason: that they would provide material to strengthen all my well-founded and entirely justifiable prejudices.
This time I found myself entirely at sea over what seemed to be the big story: how should I react, I wondered, to nice Mr Cameron’s intention – because of our parlous finances – to remove child benefit from those earning over £44,000 a year? What’s the difficulty, I thought: why not? It makes sense to ask (as he put it) that the “broadest shoulders should bear a greater load”. It might not raise all that much: but it “sends a signal” that he wants fairness.
Janet Daley (who over the years I have agreed far more often than not) in The Sunday Telegraph accepted that that was what it was supposed to do. But she obviously thought this was a bad thing. “As they staggered from the train wreck that was the child benefit fiasco last week”, she wrote (cor! I thought), “Tory spokesmen … recited pretty much word for word the new official defence: this measure was admittedly not much of a step towards dismantling the deficit (in the weird times in which we live, a saving of a billion pounds is relative peanuts), but it was intended as a ‘signal’ that the well-off were going to have to bear their share of the burden.”
Well, I thought, what’s the matter with that? It makes sense to do that: and more than half the population according to one poll (against a third who dissented) agreed. Then Janet Daley came in with what looked at first like a clincher. Ms Daley over the years has been one of the great defenders of the married family against all those forces which over recent decades have destabilised it; I have journalistically over the years followed admiring in her trail. Now she identifies this “child benefit fiasco” as being yet another threat to the family.
As it emerged, she said, “that this testament to ‘fairness’ was quite grotesquely unfair to traditional families with a single earner, and to couples who had made the mistake of actually marrying (cohabiting parents will be unaffected, since there is no way of proving that they are connected to one another), an even more unfortunate signal escaped unnoticed”.
That is certainly an unintended consequence that has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency: and fortunately for my by now severely confused mental state, Matthew D’Ancona in his next door Telegraph column provided the answer – a neat solution which requires that something be done which should be done anyway: that this particular encouragement to cohabitation rather than marriage be removed. This problem, he wrote, “adds force to the (already powerful) argument that couples should be allowed, as they were in the past, to choose whether to be taxed singly or jointly”.
So, Mr Cameron: how about it? You have said repeatedly that you are in favour of the family because it is a force for stability in society: here is your chance to strengthen the family in its most stable and durable form: the form based on the marriage of a woman and a man. You don’t have to say that that’s what you’re doing if it embarrasses you: just say it’s all about “fairness”. That will do the trick. If you don’t, I foresee that this unintended consequence of your child benefit initiative will more and more return to haunt you.