The implications of universality


UNDERLYING THIS week's extraordinary political events is a clash of ideas. This ideological conflict has been obscured by the Government's ineptitude on the one side and, on the other, by the passionate nature of the reaction it has provoked. It is nonetheless real, and it is time we brought it to the surface.

At its heart are two very different ways of delivering State benefits and services. One way is to make those services - health, education, and welfare benefits - universally available. The other is to target them at those who are most in need and let those who can do so look after themselves.

What we seem to have learned in the last two weeks is that the Government favours the second of these approaches while the public is wedded to the first. This is obviously the case in relation to medical cards for the over-70s, but it also applies to a range of other issues from university fees to child benefit. It has been increasingly obvious that the approach of the Government is to respond to the budgetary crisis by shifting from universal to targeted provision. It has been just as obvious that attempts to engineer this shift without arguing explicitly and coherently for it are doomed to failure.

It is worth saying that, for all the folly and confusion of the Government's strategy (though calling it a strategy is perhaps unduly flattering), its line of thought is not automatically invalid. It is quite legitimate to argue that social justice can be best served by targeting those most in need. There is considerable evidence over the last four decades that the middle classes, rather than the poor and marginalised, have benefited most from the expansion of State supports and services. If the Government really wants to challenge the assumptions behind universal provision, it should have the courage of these new-found convictions and put forward a reasoned case.

Equally, however, the public needs to understand that its apparent rejection of this line of argument has implications. A universal approach can be both highly efficient and socially just - if it is supported by a strongly progressive tax system. To work properly, it needs taxes to be both heavy enough to pay for it and sufficiently redistributive to take back more from the well-off than they receive in benefits.

The evidence so far has been that the public wants universal provision but not the tax system to pay for it. It has consistently voted for parties that have promised to cut direct taxes and keep them low. It has also tolerated high levels of tax reliefs that have benefited the well-off. This is an incoherent response and it has produced an incoherent system, in which neither a universal nor a targeted approach has been consistently applied.

We could stumble along through the good years without having to make these choices, even if our failure to do so made Government spending much less effective than it should have been. That nonchalance is no longer an option. In its confused, cack-handed and insensitive way, the Government was trying to recognise the implications of this new reality. Those who oppose its measures will have to do the same.