In which I ruminate on fairness …

Back where I come from the next door village had a visiting fun fair twice a year. One visit was for the village Feast Day the other was the normal annual fair. Why do you need to know this? Well it’s to explain my mother’s response whenever I complained that something wasn’t fair.

Well,” she would say, “if it isn’t fair it must be Feast.”

You had to be there really.

Children have an acute sense of fairness and mine are indignant on my behalf for the unfairness on my being given the push. It’s not the first time that the observation has been made to me. In conversations with colleagues there is always, just beneath the daze, a simmering feeling that somehow none of us deserve what is happening to us.

News on Sunday morning that child benefit would be scaled back as part of the overall reform of the welfare system hasn’t helped the family mood and set Mrs RPS’ teeth on edge.

‘But they said they’d protect it,’ she fumed.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but ‘protect’ can have many meanings. It could mean that you protect the principle of a universal child benefit payment while being able to alter the age at which a child ceases to be eligible. Or you can translate the payment as a constituent part of the basket of benefits that you are incorporating into the new single payment.

Mrs RPS looked far from impressed.

‘So, let me get this straight Sir Humphrey. Your sophisticated policy presentation skills enables you to explain that you can simultaneously protect something whilst taking it away?

‘Yep. Good isn’t it? I can also explain why up is down and down is up and how the bumble-bee is airworthy.’

‘Well think about this, smartarse,’ she said sweetly as she exited the room, ‘while you’re being sacked it also sounds like we’re about to lose the child benefit too. So any ideas about how we bridge that income gap?

I suspect we’re not alone this weekend in worrying about what other pieces of financial bad news are waiting just around the corner. My daughters are already fretting about university fees of £10k a year. Mrs RPS and I wonder if we will be the first and last of our families to get a university education. Have our families’ fortunes reached their high-tide?

In a really interesting article in the Guardian John Lanchester raised the issue of fairness and the deficit reduction plans. He said,

Put all this together, and the unfortunate fact is becoming unmissably clear: the consequences of the credit crunch are going to fall far more heavily on the innocent than on the guilty. A lot of people who did nothing wrong and who are entirely blameless in the credit crunch are going to lose their jobs. The current estimate for public sector job losses to come is 600,000, in addition to the 750,000 (mainly) private sector workers who have lost their jobs already. “Tell us what we did wrong” – I heard the wife of a laid-off firefighter asking that question, and not getting an answer. She is not going to be the last person to ask it.

She absolutely isn’t. Many of us facing the end of our current careers have already asked this question. By and large we’re people who have quietly got on with our jobs. Paid our taxes. Kept our noses clean. Been good neighbours. Raised our children to be good citizens. Even volunteered in a pre-Big Society way. Now it’s ‘so long’ and ‘please switch off the light on the way out.’

We’re left wondering what all that good citizenship was worth in the teeth of ignorant, dogmatic and cheap abuse from certain elements of the political classes. People who believe that public service always equates to expensive, poor quality work produced by lazy, feather-bedded scoundrels only in it for themselves.

Good manners should probably prevent me from observing that some of the nastiest commentary seems to come from people whose track record in playing fast and loose with the public purse should have at least shamed them into reticence. I probably also should avoid mentioning that there seems to be a significant inverse correlation between the enthusiasm of many advocates of the rigours and benefits of the private sector and the time they have actually spent not being dependent upon the public purse.

All of which brings me back to the whole issue of fairness. I doubt there are many serious people who think that nothing should be done either to reduce public spending or to reform public services. But John Lanchester suggested that the government is actually attempting to do more than that: to create an ‘inflection’ point where the entire direction of public policy turns in a new and different direction.

For us on the ground this is not, however, about grand theories and policy wonkery. It’s about real lives, being lived by real people, in the real world. And in the real world real people living real lives care about fairness. As a nation it’s deep within our DNA and right at the heart of who we are as a people. This goes beyond a childish cry of ‘unfair’. It’s about where the red lines are for ordinary folk when they say, ‘what’s fair is fair.’

So we can understand the need for cuts and for change. But we resent the unfairness of the back to business as usual attitude of some significant parts of our national life. Like big finance for example. Considerable profits now being earned in banking seem to be generated through a combination of cheap central bank money, limitless taxpayer underwriting of bank activities and supine regulation. Making money in this environment seems so straightforward that it’s akin to playing a one-armed bandit that always pays out.

It will be interesting to see if today’s meeting on restoring the reputation of the City, hosted by the Lord Mayor, comes up with something more than the merely symbolic. (I wouldn’t hold your breath on this though.)

One aspect of our national veneration of fairness is our dislike for gloating. For those of us in public service some claims of regret about cuts do not seem as sincere as others. The relish, for example, with which the list of demising Quangos was greeeted by some was deeply unpleasant. But we know that the expressions of sorrow are often not meant and we also know the mantra about difficult decisions is not really meant for us. It’s meant to reassure folks who remain hazy about whether any of these plans for an ‘inflection point’ were discussed in the election.

Meanwhile to paraphrase a wise and wonderful woman, it certainly isn’t fair. But it doesn’t feel much like feast either.

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About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
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