If ever an illustration of la différence between Britain and France were needed, tomorrow will provide one. In the Budget, the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, will almost certainly reduce taxation on income above £150,000 from 50 to 45 per cent. In France, by contrast, the leading candidate in the Presidential election, the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande, will sit quite comfortably with a stated pledge to raise taxation on income above €1 million (£833,000), to 75 per cent. He apparently toyed with raising the rate to 100 per cent – ie creating a maximum income.
Ignore for one moment the spectacle of Osborne’s logic nobly holding firm against actual experience. (We’ve already had a supply-side revolution in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which cut taxes on the rich and corporations, and didn’t succeed in raising economic growth from the rates achieved when taxes were higher. Now that economic growth has vanished, we apparently need another supply-side, trickle down revolution to give money to the “growth-generating rich”. I’m absolutely convinced it will work).
But just consider democracy. 67 per cent of all British voters and 65 per cent of Conservative voters are against the reduction. But a governing coalition, representing two of the three political parties, with a “collective” vote of 59 per cent, will deliver it anyway.
This is a perfect illustration of the writer Dan Hind’s assertion that the public in Britain is audible only when it echoes governing assumptions. When 54 per cent of the public think that unemployment benefits are too high, they entrench and embolden government policy. When the vast majority favour high taxes on the rich, or for example rail re-nationalisation, they are mute. In British “democracy” what they think has no means of translation into actual policy.
Contrast this to France, where the silence of the masses has not been attained. Hollande’s 75 per cent tax plan is supported by, according to polls, 61 per cent of the electorate. He himself has poll ratings in the mid to high ‘50s. But his tax plan is also backed by the Left Front candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has achieved poll ratings as high as 11 per cent.
So in France, there is actually more support for higher taxes on millionaires among political parties than among the population. In Britain, the reverse is true. That is an essential difference.
The reasons are several, from contrasting historical traditions, to different electoral systems and grassroots political parties that do not just look to think tanks to generate their policies for them.
But I think, at root, the Left in France has a courage and self-belief that attracts people, whereas the Left in Britain is timid and anaemic. Left Front candidate Mélenchon has called for a “civil insurrection” across Europe that would proclaim solidarity with the people of Greece and other victims of austerity. He has dragged Hollande, considered a centrist technocrat, leftwards. “He’s not afraid to say what he thinks and he’s full of energy,” says one (wavering) supporter of Mélenchon quoted in the Financial Times.
No-one is ever going to say that about Ed Miliband.