Can we afford it?
Can we afford it?

The cost of living is in the news - and in people's lives - very much at the moment. We regularly see stories (and people regularly live these stories) about having to make agonising choices. My son's school trousers don't fit him any more and he needs a new pair; my daughter is desperate to join the school trip all her friends are going on. I can't afford both trousers and trip - what do I do? Or worse. It's a freezing cold day: do I put on the heating or feed my family? I can't do both.

Thinking very carefully about whether you can afford to spend money on something, whether it's lunch or a house, is an essential skill for life. It's not, however, something to think about when debating. Why not?

The great economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) said, 'Anything we can actually do we can afford.' That's an important principle for debaters to remember. Here's a recent example of this principle being put into practice.

Who would have thought, as Big Ben tolled midnight on New Year's Eve 2019, that by the end of the year the British (Conservative!) government would have paid millions of workers 80% of their wages for staying at home doing nothing, handed out hundreds of millions of pounds of free money to small businesses, and picked up half of the bill for all of us whenever we fancied eating out in a restaurant? Covid was a national emergency that required emergency measures. Because we had to do it, we could afford it.

You can (and should) assume that any measure that is proposed in a debate motion is affordable. Rather than focusing on how much it will cost, focus on whether it is the right thing to do. Don't talk about can; talk about should.

To give an example. The motion is: This house would provide free school meals for all primary school children. If you're the opposition, don't make the argument that this would be too expensive when we're in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Instead, assume that there is enough money, and talk instead about whether it is the best use of that money. We can give all primary school children free lunches; but should we? Is it fair that this benefit should go to every single child, when many families can easily afford to pay for their children's food? Why should the taxes paid by a bus driver go towards serving up fish and chips every Friday for the daughter of a billionaire banker who flies her to the Maldives in his private jet every school holiday? Similarly, if you're the proposition, don't waste time calculating how much all those lunches will cost and demonstrating there's enough money in the (national) bank. Instead, focus on the principle of universal benefits. Billionaires can send their children to state schools for free on exactly the same basis as bus drivers. They don't have to pay for textbooks; why should they have to pay for lunches? Making everything about state education free at the point of use creates a sense of solidarity and equality between different sections of society. Look at how we all rallied round the NHS during Covid; because it was free to all of us, it felt like it belonged to all of us.

So the question to answer in the free school meals debate is (as it is in most debates which involve spending money) not Can we afford it? but Should we do it?