Cameron’s Confused Conservatism: The Marriage Tax Break

During the 2010 election campaign, David Cameron made a big deal out of bashing nanny statism. He proudly stood in front of posters emblazoned with statements such “Big Society, Not Big Government” and proclaimed how “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” At the same time he also reassured the electorate he was bringing back compassionate Conservatism – he would no longer be a prisoner of an ideological past and would instead promote a more socially tolerant and inclusive governing party. As well as defining himself whilst in opposition, Cameron also made it his moral duty to bully Gordon Brown over his incompetence in governance and promised a plug on the constant stream off legislation that said much, but achieved little.

Three years in to his time as Prime Minister on these three areas Cameron has had a mixed bag of policy successes and failures, his report card reads – overall he must try a lot harder. This week’s commitment to give married couples a tax break is the latest policy that highlights Dave’s shortcomings in these areas which he has pinned his colours to – it’s nanny state moralising, it’s not inclusive and it is not going to achieve a lot.

Whilst on the surface, a tax cut looks like Cameron rolling back the state, starving the beast or whichever Ayn Rand metaphor you prefer – but in reality, the measly saving for couples of £3 a week is not worth the moral statism and social paternalism that comes with it. Implementing this policy is going to come with layers of legislation to work out who is and isn’t eligible and will make individual’s marital status the business of the tax office. As well it is hardly a policy to be championed by someone who is sceptical of the state setting society’s values – remember it is supposed to be Big Society not Big Government.

The principles behind the marriage tax allowance make it exclusive and discriminatory, hardly compassionate. It discriminates against couples that don’t register their relationships with the state and it also distinguishes relationships that do not fit in to the traditional pigeonhole as undesirable. It is a slap in the face to all single parents that went through a divorce for their child’s benefit and it is ignorant to the complexity of modern relationships. It also assumes that a married family unit will produce the best outcomes for a child when in reality a child needs stability and support, not a blueprinted perfect family model.

The stated eventual goal of the marriage tax allowance is to stop the decline in the proportion of married families in the UK and to improve child outcomes. It is hard to see how the policy could incentivise marriage or halt divorce; the saving on offer is so pathetically small. The justification that it would improve child outcomes is shaky as well, Dr Patrick Nolan the Chief Economist at Reform states “The strongest evidence shows that the most important things in ensuring children get the best start in life are having a parent in work and family income. Proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system would not help reduce the number of jobless households or child poverty.”

So whilst he has stated he is an opponent of big state bureaucracy and a promoter of compassionate government, the married tax allowance is the latest in a long string of policies that conflicts with Cameron’s supposed values that he espouses.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, the saving could come in handy but not for its intended reasons. The average marriage in the UK lasts for about 12 years and the marriage tax break over that time would save a couple around £2400. This should get both parties a decent solicitor and also cover the court costs and other miscellaneous fees involved with getting a divorce – perfect.

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