Since the end of World War II, the British have grown accustomed to the idea that the money in their pockets is what the government graciously consents to leave them after it has taken its share. When (as rarely happens) the chancellor of the exchequer reduces a tax instead of increasing it, even conservative newspapers say that he has “given money away,” as if all money came from him in the first place. The wealth is the government’s and the fullness thereof: where such a belief is prevalent, no tax increase will seem either illegitimate or oppressive.
What did provoke the furious opposition was the government’s proposals to reduce spending in such areas as education and health care, as well as its plan to increase tuition at public universities.
The biggest demonstration against the government’s proposals was on March 26. A quarter of a million people took to the streets—in solidarity with themselves. Many were teachers protesting the proposed cuts in education spending. Yet after a compulsory education lasting 11 years and costing, on average, $100,000 per pupil, about a fifth of British students who do not attend college after high school are barely able to read and write, according to a recent study from Sheffield University. Considering the disastrous personal consequences of being illiterate in a modern society, this is a gargantuan scandal, amounting to large-scale theft by the educational authorities. No anarchist ever smashed a window because of this scandal, however; and so it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the demonstration was in defense of unearned salaries, not (as alleged) of actual services worth defending.
The legacy of Britain’s previous government, which expanded the public sector incontinently, is thus an almost Marxian conflict of classes, not between the haves and have-nots (for many of the people in the public service are now well-heeled indeed) but between those who pay taxes and those who consume them.