Is this the coalition's 10p tax moment?

Child benefit cuts come under attack from all sides.

It must count as some achievement to attract the simultaneous ire of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the trade union movement and the Labour Party. That's the unusual position George Osborne finds himself in this morning as his raid on child benefit comes under attack.

It appears that the cabinet was given little, if any, advance warning of the move, with one minister describing it as "complete bombshell". The Mail and Telegraph both attack the measure as a blow against the family in their leaders this morning and the IFS warns of the perverse anti-work incentives that result from the move. The decision to abolish child benefit for all higher-rate taxpayers means that a one-earner couple with two children with a gross income of £43,876-£46,850 would be worse off than if their income were £43,875. A one-earner couple with an income of £43,875 would need a pay rise of at least £2,975 to ensure they were no worse off after paying tax and losing child benefit.

It's for reasons like this that, less than 24 hours after the measure was announced, the children's minister, Tim Loughton, has already floated the possibility of "compensating measures" for those who have lost out. Is this the coalition's 10p tax moment? It would be foolish to rule it out. The decision to simultaneously abolish tax credits for all those earning over £30,000 means that there will be howls of anguish from those set to lose thousands of pounds of benefits in a single stroke.

But far more significant is the fact that this marks the opening salvo in the coalition's war on the universal welfare state. The decision to make child benefit universal was never just about income, rather it was the means by which society collectively recognised and supported the decision of couples to start a family. Once the poison of means-testing is injected into the system, the principles on which the entire welfare state is built start to break down. And it is the poorest who will suffer the most from the abandonment of universality. As the great sociologist, Richard Titmuss phrased it: "services for the poor will always be poor services." Ed Miliband must live up to his campaign promises and resist the coalition all the way.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times