I watched the last of the prime ministerial debates with a group of lively postgraduate politics students in a hotel in Leuven, the beautiful medieval town twenty miles from Brussels. No-one showed much interest until David Cameron turned to the subject of inheritance, when he delivered this gem: “passing your family home on to your children” is “the most natural human instinct of all”.
This unrepresentative sample of the British electorate could think instantaneously of at least three human instincts that were by any measure more natural than passing on the family home, at least one of which was also much more fun.
Gordon Brown made much in the debate of the Conservatives’ proposals on inheritance tax as a millionaire’s charter. But none of the mainstream parties can claim to have promised to do very much on the question of inheritance.
As they huffed and puffed to make much of the fag-paper’s breadth that divides them on this as on many other issues, it was clear that no-one in the political mainstream will seriously address this question of the transmission of privilege (and disadvantage).
In fact, and at least for three or four years after 2000, Labour’s record on the reduction of (especially child) poverty was not at all bad (though it has slipped back since then, as the recent Joseph Rowntree Trust report made clear.
In its early years, it introduced Sure Start and the Child Trust Fund. But these were overwhelmed by the traffic carrying income inequality in the opposite direction. On social mobility, the record is one of grim under-achievement; made to look tolerable only by the still worse record of the Tories who preceded them. For just the latest depressing round of evidence, see the Marmot Review.
Inheritance is not natural. Some of the keenest defenders of private property throughout history have scorned the idea that we have a right to that which our parents earned (or stole or themselves inherited).
Seneca and St. John of Chrysostom provide two classical sources. A thoroughly modern liberal like John Stuart Mill was a severe critic of inheritance. It was once regarded as in the mainstream to argue that the increment in land values that adjacent development brought belonged not to the lucky landowner but to the community at large.
But such a view now seems to be off-limits, at least to politicians; though, by contrast, see Phillipe Legrain’s recent article in the Financial Times.
And yet more, much more of a radical stance on questions of property is required of us if we are even to pretend to takes seriously the issues of environmental change and is social consequences which stand before us as an inconvenient (if still, for some, an unproven) truth.
But we have almost certainly lost the capacity to think this big. We don’t want to address questions of social mobility because we hope to be able to transmit such advantages as we now have to our own children in what looks like a very uncertain world, one in which we have largely lost faith in our capacity to forge effective collective solutions.
When we hold up our politicians for ridicule for their small-mindedness and unwillingness to think of the long-term and the big picture we should remember this. If there was a real popular will to address these things, there’d be a politician to stand for it. When we see our politicians, we are not just viewing a screen or a gazing up at a podium, we are looking in a mirror. Who is to blame if we don’t like what we see?
Professor Chris Pierson