It’s funny the way a phrase enters the political lexicon. From Garrett Fitzgerald’s “flawed pedigree” to Albert Reynolds’ “that’s women for you”, there’s no guarantee that the meaning of the phrase will remain attached to the original intention of the speaker. The response to Leo Varadkar’s remark about “people who get up early in the morning” was fascinating. People on the Consensus Left commentariat immediately described it as an attack on anyone not working for whatever reason, and Fine Gael basically backed away and if not exactly disowned the remark certainly didn’t nail it to the proverbial political mast.
The funny thing is that, in my experience, there were large sections of the country who agreed with it, and not just the wealthy or professional classes either. They saw it not as an attack on welfare (there’s hardly any anti-welfare vote in any class in this country) but an endorsement of the ordinary workers who pay the taxes that fund everything.
Yet they were basically shouted off the stage by the Consensus Left who are to current political debate what the Catholic lay fanatics were to the state in its first fifty years of existence. I mention the Catholic lay fanatics because I was reminded this week of the disruption of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” by Catholic fundamentalists because there was reference to prostitution in the play, and its significance. The shouting down of social reality in a play not because it is a social issue but because the playwright dared to raise it in contravention of the then Catholic consensus.
We are, as a country, incredibly susceptible to groupthink, and the latest concept to be hoisted up before the people as a golden calf to be worshipped is the idea that “nobody wants tax cuts”. Wait and see when I post this on Twitter: I’ll be inundated with people telling me that I’m a Thatcherite neo-liberal (I’m actually more left wing than most of those who attack me. I support property taxes, for one) but more importantly, those attacking will trip over themselves to try to suggest that those advocating tax reduction are a tiny and unrepresentative minority out of step with the majority.
It’s bollocks. Don’t get me wrong: there is a very significant section of the country who will always support increased public spending over tax reduction, and many of them do not benefit from it directly, aside from the No Tax Cuts people who curiously insist upon talking in Take Home Pay terms. But talk to non-political people about politics, and time after time two issues do light up the eyes. The first is that sentences for violent crimes seem to be very light, and the second is that taxes are higher than is fair.
At this point in the debate, I normally get the “I would happily pay higher taxes for better services” people come galloping down the hill. And why not? It’s a very noble position, and perfectly reasonable. I’m not an ideological big government/small government person. Sometimes big government is needed: it wasn’t a sub-contracted private security firm that fought its way up Omaha beach. But the Happily Pay gang are very specific about what they’re against: “You can stick your €5 tax cut!”. But ask them what specifically giving the HSE the extra €100m extra instead of a €5 tax cut will get, in detail, in terms of specific service improvement, and suddenly the charging horde does a Holy Grail and runs away. They don’t like talking value for public spending.
It’s the strangest thing: once the concept of more money is agreed, they lose interest, with little interest in how its spent.
What’s more noticeable is how the centre-right in Ireland have bought the logic, almost apologizing for the idea that Irish workers might keep a little more of their own money. It’s simply wrong. There’s little reason to believe that visible tax reduction is an unpopular concept. After all, its chief opponents are people who will never not vote left anyway.
Having said that, let me bang on once again for the argument that FG should be advocating tax rebates rather than tax cuts. A bit of showmanship here is worth the effort: let the tax payers hold the lump sum cheque in their hands as a tangible example of tax reduction. Indeed, as the next general election approaches, it can be postdated for after the election, so that a new government would have the right to cancel the cheques. Let that be something worth debating in the next party leaders debate.