Good old days

The Welfare State We're In

James Bartholomew <em>Politico's, 402pp, £18.99

ISBN 1842750631


I couldn't help but judge this book by its cover. Partly because its title is appropriated from Will Hutton's bestseller, partly because its publicity material boasts: "The face of the hooded boys on the cover of this book says something about modern Britain." Let's look closely at the faces of those two boys. Yep, they look slightly surly - as teenage boys do. And what does this reveal about modern Britain? Well, hoodies are definitely still in and, well . . . that's it.

Not, however, if you are James Bartholomew. For him, the existence of hooded boys indicates that the welfare state has made this country an unhappy place in which to live, and that we should get rid of it - all of it.

This is indeed a radical and interesting proposition. But I'm still flummoxed by those hoods. I don't particularly like gangs of hooded boys on bikes, but I have enough experience of slouching boys with hoods lurking around my house - teenage daughters, you see - to know that you cannot judge a boy by his hood. The ones who want one day to edit the Guardian, and who are now the biggest drug dealers, have hoods. The ones who have been well and truly let down by the state in all its manifestations have hoods. Relax, it's just a look. Hoods, though, are now short- hand for antisocial. Antisocial behaviour orders banning all head gear from hoods to hijabs are surely on the cards.

Despite such paranoia, this is a highly readable book. It will come as no surprise that Bartholomew was once a leader-writer on the Daily Mail. His writing bears all the hallmarks of a Mail editorial: a sense of brooding menace lurking just outside the front door; a righteous belief in decent people helping themselves; the promotion of charity, self-help and entrepreneurship over state intervention; an instinctual feeling that everything used to be better; a tendency to link all sorts of quite different behaviours to one simple cause (the welfare state); and an attempt to dress up this ideology as common sense.

Yet Bartholomew goes much further than the Mail ever would. The majority of people on left and right accept both the welfare state and the need to reform it. No political party says "abolish it". But this is precisely what Bartholomew says - and one day, surely, a libertarian right-wing party will make progress with just such an argument. Bartholomew's complaint isn't only that the NHS is killing people on the sly or that scroungers are claiming millions in incapacity benefits with their new-fangled illnesses of stress and mental despair. He wants to dismantle the entire system of state provision: education, pensions, everything. We may whinge about hospitals, but can you really imagine going back to a society in which education is no longer free? Even Bush would not suggest such a thing.

Everywhere he looks, Bartholomew sees "a picture of intellectual and cultural deterioration" - surely a requirement for anyone who wants to write leaders on the Mail. From hooligans on holiday in Faliraki to Wife Swap, it's all bad. Somehow, again, this is the fault of the welfare state - even though sometimes what Bartholomew actually means is the state.

He takes us back to the days of friendly societies and roams over the Poor Laws of 1834. Basically, since then nothing has changed. You must not give too much to the poor man, as then "he need not bestir himself to seek work".

Now a whole class barely bestirs itself, and all the familiar arguments are trotted out about the disintegration of the family and the rise of the shameless lone parent. None of this is the fault of capitalism. Quite the reverse: Bartholomew prefers ultra-capitalist Hong Kong, where taxes are low and growth is high, to the Swedish model of high taxes and low growth.

But what he misses when he casually makes statements such as "Fear of living without the welfare state may well derive partly from ignorance" is the attachment British people have not to the whole of the welfare state, but to parts of it. We have an unshakable faith in the NHS as a mark of a civilised society.

We don't necessarily feel the same way about other parts of the state, and often feel that someone is getting a free ride while we are paying for it. However, the idea that families would help each other in hard times and that this would provide enough of a safety net is surely a joke.

Bartholomew, like most rightwingers, wants us to live in Singapore crossed with Surrey, a prospect that frightens the living daylights out of me. A far better title for this book would have been that of the Blur album: Modern Life Is Rubbish.

And now excuse me while I go and nick a hoodie - just to show some solidarity.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist on the Mail on Sunday