Cameron's housing benefit proposals are part of an ongoing redefinition of adulthood

PM continuing is a trend of assuming people in their twenties are still basically teenagers.

This isn't just about welfare. It isn't just about saving public money. It certainly isn't just about the feckless and workshy breeding on the state. David Cameron's desire to remove housing benefit from (almost) everyone below the age of 25 might be evidence – depending on where you're coming from politically – of populism, of the re-emergence of the "Nasty Party" or of some long-overdue tough love. But I would put it in a wider social context. I would ask: why it is happening now?

Cameron says that he wants to tackle a culture of dependence upon the state. What he seems to want to replace it with is dependence of children upon their parents well into what most would consider adulthood. He praises the couples who live (usually apart) in the family home until they can afford to put down a deposit on a house, a dream which may be forever beyond many of today's young people. He damns those who start their families early, before they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their offspring through their wages alone.

Of course, the rhetoric contrasts the feckless unemployed "scrounger" with the "responsible" twentysomething (or perhaps even thirtysomething) who works all day and then comes home to Mum and Dad. As the prime minister must be well aware, however, the majority of housing benefit claimants are in work. And that includes those who are under the age of 25. The benefit bill has mushroomed because rising house prices and rent levels have prevented an increasing number of working people from affording homes without help, whether that help comes from the state, from parental loans or from the ability to live in the parental home effectively rent-free.

In such a generationally skewed market, housing benefit might well be seen more as an aid to achieving independence and adulthood than as a form of dependence upon the state. To be able to leave the family home is a prerequisite to being able to travel to find work. It thus encourages self-reliance, self-esteem and a spirit of positive engagement with the world. Conversely, being forced to stay at home in adult life risks inculcating fatalism, depression and social as well as geographical immobility. Not to mention social friction, embarrassment, sexual frustration (not all parents are happy for even their adult children to sleep with partners in the family home), resentment and a sense of failure.

The true purpose of a safety net is not just to catch people when they fall, but to give them the confidence to jump. 

Of course it's unfair that some young families are accommodated with the help of the state while other young people cannot afford to leave home and start families of their own. I can see how this can lead to resentment. But it's hard to see how unfairness is eliminated by making things unfair for everyone. What is needed is a properly thought-out strategy for putting housing within the reach of younger people who don't work for investment banks or have trust funds to fall back on.

As I suggested at the beginning, though, this is about more than just housing benefit. To propose 25 as a qualifying age for help with rent is to imply that, whatever their circumstances, anyone below that age is not really an adult. In effect, it is to extend the concept of adolescence into the mid-twenties. It is to say that under-25s are too young for responsibility, too young to have lives and children of their own. Twentysomething pregnancy is the new teenage pregnancy and poorly-paid young workers are the new NEETs. Cameron's latest proposal does not exist in a vacuum. Recent years have seen such nonsenses as "Challenge 25", a draconian response to the declining "problem" of underage drinking that subjects people of clearly legal age to the ritual humiliation of producing ID at supermarket checkouts. One might note the demographic category of 18-25 itself, originally a marketing tool that assumes that people in their twenties are still basically teenagers. Indeed, it has increasingly been supplanted an 18-34 demographic, truly an ominous sign.

A society in which mass higher education is the norm is going to think rather differently about growing up than one in which most children leave school at 16 and enter the labour market. But the biggest contributory factor to delayed-onset adulthood is surely economic: the accumulation of capital in the older generation. The middle aged and the elderly have all the money and most of the power. This is not necessarily good news for them. The flip-side of extended adolescence is extended parenthood. To force younger people to live at home is also to force middle-aged people to continue to fund and support their offspring. If adult children are unable to begin their independent lives, their parents are equally unable to resume theirs.

 

The changes to housing benefit will see children move back in with parents. Photograph: Getty Images
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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia