The welfare debate and the end of reason

The way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic seems unprecedented, says Alex Andreou.

I am quite frightened. There have always been some unreasonable people in politics. However, the way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic, seems unprecedented. The way in which evidence is openly sneered at, is nothing short of medieval. The End of Reason.

People going to work early in the morning were stopped outside a London tube station and "vox-popped" by Channel 4 News.

"What do you think about the proposed cap on benefits?", they were asked. "If I have to get up and go to work, I don't see why they shouldn't have to", said one person. "I think it's fair," said another. Challenged by the reporter on whether it's fair on someone who has just been made redundant and has been paying tax and NI for years, she added "well, obviously not them".

The debate earlier in the House of Commons displayed equal levels of Daily Mail common sense. A hissing Kris Hopkins MP suggested that unemployment was "a lifestyle choice". Aidan Burley MP - you know, the one that thinks Nazis are an appropriate theme for a party - read out a letter from an unnamed constituent, relating how she had heard from an unnamed friend, that she was claiming five hundred pounds a week in benefits.

Asked about trial schemes today, Chris Grayling - the dude in charge of Justice, no less - said: “The last Government was obsessed with pilots. Sometimes you just have to believe in something and do it.” That's right. None of your namby-pamby, pinko-leftie evidence rubbish. YEAH. We just think of stuff and do it. And, as the last budget proved, then hastily undo it.

And so it goes, the End of Reason.

A national debate, orchestrated from the top down, which cares not a jot for facts or evidence. Facilitated by the poison pumped daily through our television set, which has seeped so deep into our national muscle memory that we are no longer able to distinguish between Jeremy Kyle guests, chosen because they make for good voyeurism, and ordinary decent people. Our reaction as considered as that of a patellar ligament to a doctor's reflex hammer.

So, how do we fight it? Anger may well provide the energy, but it is not the whole answer. Reason, logic, truth are - and have always been - the precision instruments for dissecting hysterical phobias.

The Conservatives will continue to speak the language of fear. It suits them; it is all they know. They released this image yesterday.

Look at that little arrow. You're only getting that now. Look at that BIG ARROW. Someone else is getting that. Look at what all that scrounger waste can win you. Iain, show the contestants what is behind door number 1. Doctors! And behind door number 2? Teachers! And let's open door number 3. A tax cut of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS!

How exciting. So, what are we getting for sentencing two million innocent children to hunger? Well,  in fact, none of the above. NHS frontline staff numbers are declining, education is being hung, drawn and privatised and the tax burden on the majority of the electorate is higher than when the coalition took over.

But at least my arrow will get bigger, right?

Guess again. Quite contrary to the rhetoric of "making work pay" this measure does absolutely nothing to improve what work pays. As a matter of fact, making the 9 unemployed people chasing every 1 vacancy that much more desperate, is likely to have a deflationary effect on your wages. Your arrow is shrinking.

But at least this will get people back to work - the government keeps saying that. That's true, isn't it?

Wrong again. This bill does not create a single job. Indeed, the IMF recently admitted that cutting of precisely this sort has a disproportionately negative effect on growth. Essentially, by reducing the spending power of people who spend all their income on necessary goods and services (rather than those who squirrel it away in tropical island tax havens), local businesses sell less and the economy contracts.

What's that, Channel-4-News-lady-outside-the-tube-station? You work in a shop? Not for long. Soon, you will get your wish fulfilment. In a way. You won't have to resent those who don't get up to go to work. You will join them; with the added bonus of having the government that made you unemployed call you vermin. It may not be economic growth, but it is an opportunity for personal growth, don't you think?

So, what does it actually do, this bill? The short version: it attempts to plug a hole in the Government's forecasts, which keep getting revised down and down and further down, as if calculated by an over-enthusiastic limbo dancer. Only the savings are small, the hole is massive and their policies (including this one) are making it bigger. So, it's more like throwing a single shrimp into a shark's gaping mouth. Bad news for the shrimp, little effect on your chances of survival.

The added bonus is that nobody seems to be talking about huge multinationals paying no tax in this country, about which everybody seemed to be talking a month ago.

The End of Reason.

Several coalition MPs even suggested a link between rises in tax credits and the financial crisis. "Is there a direct correlation between the time that tax credits started," asked Marcus Jones MP, and "the start of the financial crisis"?

I would love to tell you that Hansard recorded the response: "Which crisis? The global one? The one that started in Iceland in financial institutions, spread to US  financial institutions and eventually reached the financial institutions of the UK? Of course there is no correlation, direct or indirect, you fucking numpty."

Sadly, the response by Alun Cairns MP was: "My Hon. Friend makes an excellent point". Pretty much any point is an excellent point, when you are witnessing the End of Reason.

An estate in Rochdale, named the most deprived area in the UK. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496