Stephen Collins: Politics of centre ground has served Ireland well
Much maligned middle classes deserve credit for progressive tax and welfare system
State policies to ensure a relatively fair income distribution have undoubtedly helped to create the success story of modern Ireland. File photograph: David Sleator
Denouncing the middle classes for a variety of sins ranging from the selfish pursuit of their own economic interests to artistic philistinism is a recurring theme of so many trenchant critics of Irish society, both inside Dáil Éireann and outside it. Most of the claims do not stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny but through constant repetition have become widely accepted.
If it is not robustly challenged this narrative has the potential to undermine the basis of our democratic, fair and tolerant society. In a European Union where the centre ground is being assailed by the combined forces of aggressive nationalism and the hard left it is vitally important that voters here make their choices on the basis of facts rather than fake news.
For instance the role of the Irish State in ensuring a reasonably fair distribution of wealth is an achievement for which it gets little or no credit from its critics. Contrary to the rhetoric official figures show that the top 10 per cent of income earners in this country pay 61 per cent of all income tax.
In a recent edition of the Economist magazine an article on tax an inequality across the world had the following comment on Ireland: “The rich pay a higher share of income tax than in most other countries while low-earning households receive generous tax credits. Most countries would struggle to copy the Irish system in full.”
One of the unusual features of the Irish system is that before tax the gap between high- and low-income earners is actually much wider than in most other countries.
This is evened out by a hefty tax on high earners, low tax on low earners and the redistributive impact of the welfare system which gives Ireland the second most progressive tax and welfare system in the developed world.
It might be expected that the higher paid who contribute such a large proportion of their hard earned cash in tax might feel resentful if not downright rebellious but in fact the opposite seems to be the case.
For instance an Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times poll after last October’s budget asked voters if the Government was right to focus extra resources on public spending increases rather than tax cuts.
While a majority of people thought the Government was wrong to prioritise public services over tax cuts, what was really interesting was that among the top earning AB voters, who pay so much of their income in tax, a majority favoured the emphasis on public spending. By contrast the lower paid were firmly in favour of tax cuts.
State policies to ensure a relatively fair income distribution have undoubtedly helped to create the success story of modern Ireland. Between 1990 and last year this country jumped from 24th place to fourth in United Nations Human Development Index, which measures the countries of the world on a range of variables including income per head, life expectancy, education, personal security and women’s rights.
The much maligned middle classes and the mainstream political parties for which they have consistently voted deserve credit for this. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party which have dominated the political system for most of the State’s history have managed the difficult feat of promoting strong economic growth while ensuring the resulting benefits are shared relatively equally. Of course that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect but it is important that current shortcomings on issues such as housing and health do not obscure the country’s underlying achievements.
It has long been fashionable to deride the Irish political system dominated by two big centre parties as backward and out of place in the modern world. In fact it is arguable that the avoidance of the extremes of left or right has been at the core of the political stability that has underpinned Irish democracy for almost a century and created the conditions for the rapid economic growth of recent decades.
The current battle in the European elections between mainstream parties and the extremes of right and left illustrates the fragility of the union’s foundations, which are based on tolerance and the rule of law. It is no accident that those extremes have a mutual hatred for the middle class and the political values of the centre.
The British historian Michael Burleigh in his riveting book on the Third Reich noted that Hitler cultivated an anti-bourgeois unconventionality as part of his artistic pose.
“His claim to being an artist revolutionary depended upon a contrast with the complacent, hypocritical and sedated bourgeoisie, a cliched conceit of the alienated, which spares them the effort of understanding contented decency, dignity, propriety, self-restraint and the non-apocalyptic virtues of a contented life,” he wrote.
Overall, the Irish political system and the middle class values that underpin it have served the country well but there are no grounds for complacency. Voters can always been swayed from the path of decency by the passionate intensity of apocalyptic visionaries.
Just look at the gullibility of our closest neighbours on Brexit or the predicament facing the unfortunate people of Venezuela who jumped from the frying pan into the fire two decades ago. Both are a reminder of the virtues of political moderation.