spiked, 10 January 2013
Apparently, Britain is in the throes of a brutal civil war. It’s an ideological war, pitting a ‘crazed’ Tory-led government against ‘the poor’. The Tory crazies, who are posh, rancid Etonians and millionaires who ‘make Thatcher look like Shirley Williams’, want to ‘slash’ the welfare state. And the poor, who are ‘already struggling’ and who must increasingly choose between ‘eating and heating’, are being battered by these warlike welfare cuts. They’re being ‘mugged’ as part of the ‘horror show’ that is the Tories’ ideological war on welfare.
That, at least, is how shrill commentators and some Labour politicians have depicted this week’s passing of the Tory-authored Welfare Bill by 324 to 268 votes in the House of Commons. What have they been smoking? Something has definitely made their minds caliginous. Because in truth, there is no ideology, crazy or otherwise, behind what the Tories are doing; and there is no serious clash of ideals or views on the matter of the welfare state. On the contrary, the bill and the weird debate it has given rise to confirm that politicians and observers of all persuasions, being bereft of any long-term social vision for Britain and being convinced that ‘the poor’ are utterly incapable of determining their own destinies, now accept the need for neverending welfarism.
The disconnect between the meat of the coalition government’s bill and the depiction of it in the media is colossal. Far from signalling a Thatcher-style war on welfare, ‘shirkers’ or socialism, the bill merely tinkers with certain aspects of welfare benefits. Specifically, it places a three-year cap of one per cent on increases in most working-age benefits. This means that benefits will rise, but not as much as the cost of living is likely to rise. It is estimated that the cost of living will go up by 2.7 per cent in the coming period, which means that, throwing all the sums together, the government’s refusal to countenance more than a one per cent rise in working-age benefits will represent a four per cent cut in such benefits in real terms. It’s estimated that, consequently, 2.5million of those households without work will get £215 per year less in real terms in 2015/16, while around seven million of the households that are in work will get £165 per year less in 2015/16.
No doubt this will be unpleasant for some families, particularly non-working families. For them, £215 in a year is not a small amount of money. And yet, what the government is doing simply cannot be described as a war on welfare. The apocalyptic, thesaurus-fuelled language that is being used to describe the government’s plans does not remotely tally with reality. Alongside restricting the amount that working-age benefits can rise by, the government is cutting some of the child benefit received by families where one parent earns more than £50,000 and is planning to make the winter-fuel allowance means-tested. What we have here is not war or ‘crazed ideology’, but accountancy - and desperate accountancy at that, where the aim is to save the state’s coffers £505million in the first year and £2.3 billion in subsequent years as a result of changes to the uprating of working-age benefits, in the harebrained belief that such savings will help stave off recession. We’re being ruled by the political equivalent of petty-cash officers, not Thatcher-like ideologues.
Far from ‘slashing’ welfare benefits, the government is trimming them, and fairly conservatively too. Why is it taking this approach? For two reasons. Firstly, precisely because it is not an ideological outfit. For all the attempts to depict the New Conservatives as Thatcher in drag, in truth David Cameron’s party is as directionless, opportunistic and short-termist as the other mainstream parties in modern Britain. Lacking both an economic vision, in terms of how growth might be re-energised and the economy might made fruitful, and bereft of a social vision, in terms of how communities and individuals might be encouraged to assume more control over their welfare and futures, the Tories prefer to fiddle with a few aspects of the benefits system. Their cagey approach to welfare speaks to the profound disarrayed state they find themselves in politically, where their only so-called solution for moribund Britain’s many problems is to continue with the same old state of affairs, only tinily tweaked.
And the second reason the Tories haven’t actually declared war on the welfare state is because they, like almost everyone else, embrace what is the really problematic ideology of our age: the conviction that people cannot survive, far less thrive, without the largesse and guidance of the state. Indeed, there is a profound and debilitating paradox in modern Europe - a great number of political outfits and parties recognise that state expenditure must be cut, but they can’t bring themselves to do it because they simultaneously adhere to the belief that communities and individuals, being apparently backward and untrustworthy, need the state as the permanent scaffolding of their lives and relationships. How would they make ends meet without the state? Know how to bring up their children? Know what to eat, how to love, what to think, and all the other things that the increasingly therapeutic, home-meddling welfare state graciously provides us with? The Tories aren’t slashing the welfare state because they support the welfare state, as does every other political actor in this era when the capacity of communities to run their affairs, and of individuals to govern their destinies, is held in historically low esteem.
It makes sense that the Tory Party, which has always been a paternalistic outfit that doubted the ability of oiks to do good or flourish, should support a system which seeks to cater to the lower orders’ perceived economic, therapeutic and moral needs. But why is the left, which traditionally had more faith in those orders, even more fulsome in its love of welfarism, to the extent that all it fights for today is the preservation and expansion of the welfare state? Once, the left demanded full employment, growth, plenty, prosperity, a new world, a new era, the abolition of poverty, ‘abundance for all’, in the words of Sylvia Pankhurst. Now it campaigns, solely and relentlessly, for the ‘right’ of the poor to be looked after, ad infinitum, by the state. Far from demanding the abolition of poverty, it effectively supports the institutionalisation of poverty in the form of a welfarism which provides people with the bare essentials of life while often simultaneously telling them they are ‘incapable’ of work and should therefore stay home, stay put, forever. The welfarist turn on the left speaks to its loss of faith in growth and abundance, and more starkly its collapse of faith in the ability of ordinary people to exist without constant support and stroking from their betters in the vast machine that the welfare state has become.
We don’t have an ideological war over the welfare state - but we need one. We need a new and serious debate about the cult of welfarism, about the fact that everyone agrees welfarism is the only solution to the problems facing society and facing the poor, and about the detrimental impact such non-stop state oversight of poor and working-class communities is having on social solidarity, community bonds and individual initiative. Of course, every civilised society should have a system of social insurance to assist the down-at-heel and also the disabled and elderly. But every civilised society ought also to encourage people to take responsibility for their lives and their communities and to demand and strive for the best existence possible. Ours, currently, has none of that.Read more of my articles for spiked and other publications here.