Iain Duncan-Smith, having pandered for so long to the Daily Mail-reading citizens of leafy suburbia, gladdening their hearts with his continual broadsides aimed at "shirkers" or those allegedly living the high life on munificent benefits may just have made a tactical error, thereby rousing the ire of the comfortably-off grey vote. Perhaps encouraged by the willing acceptance by the rich elderly of the picture he has so assiduously painted of a benefits dependency culture, IDS has finally dared to think the unthinkable, hinted at just possibly touching the untouchable - even if, as it turns out, this would be consensual touching.
The suggestion of the beleaguered Work and Pensions Secretary seems, on the face of it, quite mild - especially when compared to his scathing rhetoric directed with such concentrated fire at the unemployed, the disabled and other "benefit dependents" (especially if they dare to have - horror of unjustifiable horrors - a spare bedroom!) He has only said, in a really quite wheedling, come-on-now-you-chaps sort of tone, that the "wealthy elderly" might like to do their bit and return some of the universal freebies currently available on grounds of age alone - and regardless of what might be piled up in the bank. He would, he offered, "encourage" people who do not need this type of financial help to "hand it back." Not exactly, on the face of it, a draconian move - but it seems likely that certain Disgusted of Cheltenham types will feel betrayed by the Minister, despite his carefully-couched and indeed almost pleading remarks.
The coalition government have, up to now, been fastidiously careful not to rattle the cage of a section of society well-known for its mainly Conservative leanings. It seems likely that any dent in this traditional groundswell of support could have disastrous consequences for the Tory Party's chances of remaining on the political map come 2015 and election time. Even now, with this hesitant suggestion of self-sacrifice for the old and rich, IDS has been quick to provide reassurance that there are no plans to introduce a means-test to exclude wealthier pensioners. What Duncan-Smith is appealing to is the theoretically noble spirit of the rich: come on, guys, let's play our part and show those nasty little oiks down at the bottom of the pile just what the Dunkirk Spirit is all about. The thing is, he may have misjudged the mood.
I only heard one caller to a late-night BBC Five Live chat show debating this story. That was largely because this one chap was so irate, so indignant, that it proved extremely difficult to shut him up long enough to cut him off without appearing terribly rude to a nice old man. The level of animosity generated by this single outraged pensioner was a marvel to behold - it was only radio, but you could almost hear the veins in his temple throb. I was quite worried for his health, and the presenter seemed loath to provoke him further, lest he should bring on apoplexy. If that caller was in any way representative of his wealthy co-recipients of government largesse, then it could turn out that IDS has had another Bad Idea. It may be an old and fairly wizened tiger he has by the tail, but the teeth and the claws would appear to be in full working order and ready to turn on the hand that's been feeding them.
The worrying thing (as far as this citizen is concerned) is the marked contrast in tone and approach, depending on whether IDS is imposing swingeing cuts on people whose incomes are already stretched to snapping point, or making sweetly suggestive noises about how noble it would be to forego the £300 winter fuel allowance when you have £150k in the bank. And really, the contrast could hardly be more marked, and therefore it could hardly be more repellently disgusting. The clear implication behind such radically different ways of dealing with different sectors of society is that the government view of those disparate groups is polarised to such an extent that one might almost doubt we are talking about members of the same species. The rich are to retain a choice over whether their income should remain at a level far in excess of their needs - even if a proportion of that income comes from an over-stretched welfare budget that is already pushing people - working people - into reliance on food banks. The poor have no such choice. Stringent measures are being taken, and the Untermensch at the bottom of Society's league table can like it or lump it. There is a nasty assumption going on in Tory heads that they can trust "our sort of people", but that the peasants have to be kept in line; give them an inch and they'll take a bally mile, old boy.
This attitude pervades our current national mindset; even to the extent of sparing the rich the visitations of Justice when they've been naughty - if they happen to be well enough placed to make reparations. If two people are caught out in the same level of benefit fraud - for instance - and one can afford to repay the whole amount they've diddled out of the state, but the other can't; guess what happens. It is open for the decision makers to spare the person who can repay any actual prosecution and probable criminal record. The one who can't repay within the time limit stipulated - it's off to court with you, and a blot on your record that will dog you for years - and you still have to pay the money back, out of whatever pittance you have left. And yet the crime is identical. That's the only definition you'll ever need of unfair, unjust and a travesty of the equity of treatment that should be any government's minimum aim. It's happened under successive administrations of whatever persuasion, and it's a blot on our notion of fairness.
It may well be that IDS has committed a gaffe here, but equally it's possible that, on sober reflection, the elderly rich will decide that they aren't after all being threatened with imminent penury. And unwilling as I am to give much credit to a Minister with such an appalling record on his treatment of those who can't fight back, I actually think this is something of a tiny step in the right direction. It is time the wealthy did more to show that they share the responsibility we all have to get out of this mess. I just wish that there wasn't so much carrot on the one hand, and so much stick on the other.