Two Britains: a gulf separates the poor from the "squeezed but safe". Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
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Life after crash: why have hard times made us harsher?

In contrast to previous recessions, after Lehman Brothers crashed the belief that excessive benefits bred indolence spread. This view was endorsed by 61 per cent by 2009. 

George Osborne caps some benefits, time-limits others and invites inflation to eat into them all for years ahead. It amounts to an assault on the welfare state defying all precedent. Despite the recovery, the effect is evident in London’s resurgent rough sleeping and the preponderance of food banks in market towns.

Where Margaret Thatcher hesitated to tread in the 1980s, the polls today suggest that the right is carrying all before it. Why? Because, as I argue in my book Hard Times, the Great Recession has shifted most voters’ calculation about where self-interest lies.

This may seem like a paradox. The collectivist postwar institutions now under attack were put in place in response to the Depression. Back then, fear of a storm that could lash anybody ensured that solidarity rose as the economy sank.

The pattern held into the late 20th century. As unemployment soared by a million between 1990 and 1993, working voters reasoned that “there but for the grace of God go we”. The British Social Attitudes survey found that the proportion suspecting that benefits were “too high and discouraged work” fell to less than a quarter. After Lehman Brothers imploded, in contrast, the belief that excessive benefits bred indolence spread; the view was endorsed by 61 per cent by 2009. Why have hard times got harsher? In essence because, after 35 years of rising inequality, the old understandings about shared risk have ceased to apply.

First, there is the spectacularly unequal incidence of redundancy. After 2008, already inflated unemployment rates for the unschooled, for ethnic minorities and dead-end towns increased more rapidly, often rising twice as fast.

In some disadvantaged subgroups, such as young black men, joblessness exceeded 50 per cent. Meanwhile, the luckier segments of society – white, middle-aged graduates, for instance – were almost immune.

Redundancies occur in every recession; the more distinctive hallmark of the recent downturn – and the current recovery – is unreliable and insecure jobs. These, too, are concentrated among the already disadvantaged and barely affect the middling majority.

The people of Middle England are further protected by property. It provides a substantial cushion against adversity for ordinary homeowners, whose path through the slump was eased by super-low interest rates that did little for renters.

Put it all together, and the chief victims of the recession emerge as almost preordained. The rest can be forgiven if they conclude that hard times hold few terrors. To be sure, most people’s pay packets have been squeezed, but a few years of getting by without a rise is no disaster if you were comfortable before. It does not trigger recourse to the safety net; indeed, the most reliable way to ease the pinch might be to vote for lower taxes even if that leads to lower benefits. Self-interest has a way of warping perceptions, and so this line of thinking slides into suspicions about those who do rely on the state.

The Great Recession has bequeathed Britain two political nations. Among those substantially hit by austerity, 62 per cent told YouGov last year that they rejected the coalition’s cuts as too hasty; among those not much affected, a similar majority of 65 per cent felt that the cutting should be maintained or stepped up. Britons directly affected by the downturn said the government was “too harsh towards people on benefits”; those unaffected said it was “too soft”.

The most vulnerable minority has grown more supportive of state assistance, while the rest have become more inclined to leave victims on their own. Given that the latter are in the majority, the overall drift is rightward.

Saving social security depends on appealing across the economic gulf that separates victims of the recession from the “squeezed but basically safe”, few of whom expect to need the safety net any time soon. A pitch rooted in naked self-interest is not going to work as it might have done in more equal times, but it does not follow that social security cannot be made legitimate to the majority.

New Labour’s tax credits channelled money towards cash-strapped families simply because they were poor, and thereby failed this test. Instead, we must shore up the foundations of economic shelters in working life. This entails, first, looking beyond state benefits, and regulating or nudging employers to do more for their vulnerable staff on security and pay. Second, it entails reinventing social insurance. It would be costly to find funds for, say, a higher rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance for those who have “paid a stamp” or contributed to the community in some other demonstrable way. But doing something explicitly extra for unarguably deserving victims could break us out of the Benefits Street discourse.

The squeezed but safe could coldly conclude that it would be better to go uninsured than pay premiums to cover others. But if they are assured that those being bailed out deserve it, opinion would surely shift. Faced with a welfare system that nobody bothers to explain or defend, those who don’t need help are bound to do the selfish calculation and vote for cuts. The left should take its cue from Franklin Roosevelt’s defence of a “legal, moral and political” right to contribution-based benefits. It might just find that most of us still understand that bad things can happen to good people.

Tom Clark is the author of “Hard Times: the Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump” (Yale University Press, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.