As the food queues lengthen, the government is giving our money to the super-rich.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29th April 2014
So now you might have to buy your own crutches, but you’ll get your shotgun subsidised by the state. A few days after False Economy revealed that an NHS group is considering charging patients for the crutches, walking sticks and neck braces it issues(1), we discovered that David Cameron has intervened to keep the cost of gun licences frozen at £50: a price which hasn’t changed since 2001(2).
The police are furious: it costs them £196 to conduct the background checks required to ensure that shotguns are issued only to the kind of dangerous lunatics who use them for mowing down pheasants, rather than to the common or garden variety. As a result they – sorry we – lose £17m a year, by subsidizing the pursuits of the exceedingly rich(3). The Country Land and Business Association – the armed wing of the Conservative party – complains that it’s simply not fair to pass on the full cost of the licence to the owners of shotguns(4); unlike, say, the owners of passports or driving licences, who are charged on the basis of full cost recovery.
Three days later – on Friday – the government announced that it will raise the subsidy it provides for grouse moors from £30 per hectare to £56(5). Yes, you read that right: the British government subsidises grouse moors, which are owned by 1% of the 1% and used by people who are scarcely less rich. While the poor are being forced out of their homes through government cuts, it is raising the payments – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – that some owners use to burn and cut the land (helping to cause floods downstream), shoot or poison hen harriers and other predators, and scar the hills with roads and shooting butts(6). While the rest of us can go to the devil, the interests of the very rich are ringfenced.
Before examining the wider picture, let’s stick with the shooting theme for a moment, and take a look at the remarkable shape-shifting properties of that emblem of Downton Abbey Britain: the pheasant. Through a series of magnificent legal manouevres it becomes whatever the wealthy want it to be.
When pheasants are reared, they are classed as livestock: that means the people who raise them are exempt from some payments of value added tax and certain forms of planning control, on the grounds that they are producing food(7). But as soon as they’re released they are classed as wild animals. Otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed to shoot them. But if you want to re-capture the survivors at the end of the shooting season to use as breeding stock, they cease to be wild and become livestock again, because you aren’t allowed to catch wild birds with nets(8). If, however, pheasants cause damage to neighbouring gardens, or to cars, or to the people travelling in those cars, the person who released them bears no liability, because for this purpose they are classed as wild animals – even if, at the time, they are being rounded up as legal livestock(9). The pheasant’s properties of metamorphosis should be a rich field of study for biologists: even the Greek myths mentioned no animal that mutated so often.
In the treatment of pheasant and grouse shoots we see in microcosm what is happening in the country as a whole. Legally, fiscally and politically, the very rich are protected from the forces afflicting everyone else.
For example, earlier this year Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK listed the ways in which George Osborne has changed the tax regime for the largest corporations, and calculated that these concessions will cost the Exchequer an average of between £5bn and £10bn a year over the next six years(10). At the higher end of his estimate, that money could have prevented all the benefit cuts overseen by the Department for Work and Pensions(11).
But to call on the government to make rational and progressive fiscal decisions, as many of us do, is to misunderstand what it is attempting. It is not seeking to save the country from fiscal ruin – there are many ways of doing that without cutting essential services. It is re-engineering the United Kingdom as a plutocrats’ paradise, in which the rich are scarcely troubled by laws or taxes, while the poor are plunged into a brutal world of casual labour, insecurity and legal restraint.
There are a dozen ways in which it could have discharged the deficit without inflicting cuts in social security or other essential public services. It could have introduced land value taxation(12). Or it could have unlocked the deeply regressive banding of council tax which, as Ian Jack showed last month, ensures that the Ukrainean oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who bought a double penthouse in One Hyde Park for £136m, pays less in tax for that property than do the owners of a £200,000 house in Blackburn(13,14).
If even a flat council tax were applied – in other words, if everyone paid tax at the same rate – Mr Akhmetov might contribute around £2m a year to the exchequer, rather than £1,353. If council tax were progressive – in other words if those with the most expensive homes paid proportionately more – he might be charged £4 or 5m. Such taxes would have the additional benefit of suppressing house prices.
Or the government could have levied a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, which, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, would raise £25bn a year at a rate of just 0.01%(15). Or, instead of bamboozling the public and surreptitiously turning the UK into a new tax haven(16), it could have taken real action to prevent tax avoidance, saving, perhaps, tens of billions.
But governments almost everywhere, beholden to donors and newspaper proprietors, unchallenged by either opposition parties or their cowed and passive electorates, are not seeking to prevent the resurgence of patrimonial capitalism, of which we have recently heard so much(17), but to hasten it. They are creating a world in which the rich may live by their own rules.
So back we go to the hazy days of Edwardian England: a society dominated by rentiers, in which the city centres are set aside for those with tremendous wealth and the countryside is reserved for their bloodsports. As the queues lengthen at the foodbanks, our money is used to subsidise grouse and shotguns. That is all you need to know about how and by whom we are governed.
Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com
5. Defra has tried to pass this off as payments for “moorland farmers”, but all owners of grazed or managed moorlands, of which grouse moors are a major component, are eligible. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cap-boost-for-moorland
6. Animal Aid, 2013. Calling the Shots: the power and privilege of the grouse-shooting elite. http://www.animalaid.org.uk/images/pdf/booklets/callingtheshots.pdf
14. This assumes that a house in Blackburn valued at £69,000 in 1991 would cost around £200,000 today. http://www.blackburn.gov.uk/Pages/Council-tax-charges.aspx