Cameron risks the wrath of the young

The prime minister's crackdown on entitlement culture is misplaced and dangerous.

Damage on Clapham High Street following the riots in summer 2011. The riots were
Damage on Clapham High Street following the riots in summer 2011. The riots were blamed on youth anger. Photograph: Getty Images

David Cameron is right. Britain, like much of the developed world, is imploding under a culture of entitlement, a species of socio-economic pestilence that collapses the superstructure of modern life into its soft and rotten core. The trouble is that the people with this dangerous and misplaced sense of entitlement aren’t jobseekers, homeless youngsters and single mothers. They’re the people sitting on the boards of investment banks, none of whom will be worried by the Prime Minister’s recent proposal of further cuts to the welfare budget – including stopping housing benefit for under-25s.

Entitlement, you see, is relative. Poor people tend to feel entitled to three meals a day and a place to live that doesn’t make their kids sick. Rich people occasionally feel entitled to enormous tax breaks, speedboats and, in some cases, actual titles. Only the first type of entitlement is being outlawed, even though a reasoned, widespread sense of entitlement to a decent basic standard of living has been one of the few things dragging human progress forward over the past several centuries.

When large numbers of ordinary people begin to expect better pay and living conditions, it is generally a precursor to social change: either a government bends to public pressure and makes arrangements for better wealth redistribution or it retreats into rhetoric and bluster, cracks down violently on civil unrest and is eventually toppled. Historically, the only people to whom that broad sense of entitlement to a better life has been dangerous have been out-of-touch millionaires running the country and, as a spokesman for out-of-touch millionaires, Cameron is right to recognise the urgency of the situation. Hence his anxiety to turn the reasonable rage of the working poor against the non-working poorer.

Cameron’s justification for flaying what remains of the British welfare state to bloody pieces is that there is no money left. The problem, as any man who holidays in Tuscany knows full well, is that there is more than enough money in the country but it is badly distributed. Of the major developed nations, Britain’s wealth disparities are second only to those of the US, where recently I watched homeless men drag shopping carts full of stinking blankets under the sparkling towers of Wall Street.

Mind the gap

The real benefits gap is far bigger than most of us imagine. If the Daily Mail is truly concerned about people who have never worked living in mansions in central London, there is a number of heiresses with whom it should take up its case long before it gets to the odd rumoured immigrant family. A far larger scandal should be that almost a million properties in this country are standing empty but earning money for wealthy investors, while salaries are so low and rents so high that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in full-time work – the vast majority of housing benefit claimants – need state handouts to survive.

Cameron may have a team of speechwriters but his oratory skills still come straight out of the debating society playbook: look serious, wear a tie, pose a set of rhetorical questions and no one can argue with you. Is it right, he asks, for single mothers escaping abusive relationships to be supported while couples in full-time work can’t afford the rent? When so many young people are living with their parents well into their twenties, is it right that some of us get housing benefit?

The answer that chokes in the back of the throat is: of course it’s right. Of course the state should support people in desperate situations. It should also ensure that the jobs and salaries that everyone needs to survive are available and provide an adequate safety net for those who are unable to work because of full-time caring duties or disability or because of rising unemployment. That a safety net is full of holes is no justification for removing it and letting people break themselves on the pavement.

I was always terrible at school debating. I got too involved; I made the mistake of actually caring about the assigned topics. But, for every asinine question Cameron poses, there are ten more pertinent ones that people who care about justice could ask in return. Questions such as: is it fair for large corporations to avoid billions of pounds in tax while families that pay into the system cannot afford to stay in their home? Is it right to blame jobseekers for not finding work and punish them with starvation wages when there are 2.6 million people jostling for the few jobs that remain? Is it sensible for a government to withdraw support from the most impoverished and indebted generation to reach adulthood in living memory, making thousands of young people homeless? And – perhaps most urgently – can any government do all this without expecting riots in the streets?