It doesn’t say great things about what lies in Britain’s immediate future when Martin Lewis, the money-saving expert who until the last few months was generally associated in the public mind with the possibility of getting a slightly better deal on holiday insurance, now sounds like he’s a couple of missed meals from heading to the barricades.
On Thursday (28 July), Lewis warned that this autumn’s increase in the energy price cap – which is predicted to increase by 77 per cent in October, adding £1,500 a year to the average household’s bills – would be “simply unaffordable for millions of homes”, and would have a “frankly catastrophic” effect. “What we need,” he told ITV News, “is a willingness to take action and to grasp this, to make sure there are millions of people in this country who don’t face the choice between starvation and freezing this winter. And it’s looking like that is a realistic choice if nothing is done for many.”
There has not been much evidence of the same willingness to act in a Conservative leadership contest that has focused on more important matters such as Liz Truss’s taste in earrings. When the topic of energy bills came up in earlier stages of the contest, Rishi Sunak – breaking off for a moment from explaining how proud he is of his family’s riches – generally did his very serious “levelling with the public” face and explained that, actually, there simply wasn’t the money. On Thursday, someone in the ex-chancellor’s camp finally twigged that this might not be the vote winner he clearly thought it was, and indicated that he was open to discussions after all.
There may be a number of reasons why Sunak, like many a Tory before him, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to where he was inevitably going to end up – foremost among them that he is terrible at politics. There are the ideological factors: a sincere commitment to a limited state that avoids interfering in the operation of free markets whenever it can. Then there is at least the possibility that when he says he doesn’t want our kids to get the bill for our profligacy, he means it (even if he seems rather less worried about whether those same kids are warm enough or have enough to eat this Christmas).
But I wonder if there’s another reason, one that drives the state’s attitude to policy areas other than energy bills. And it remains upsettingly prevalent even when there are no Tories in Downing Street. Look at the rage that greets any story, however confected, about benefits cheats, and the way this is reflected in a welfare system that discourages claimants at every turn. Or consider how the Home Office is so determined to turn away potential immigrants that it treats wrecking the lives of people who do have the legal right to be here as an entirely acceptable cost of doing business.
I think that same attitude is on show with the cost-of-living crisis: a sort of furiously anti-entitlement culture, in which we’re more bothered that some people might get things they don’t deserve than that others might miss those they do. The welfare system is meant to be there as a safety net, to ensure that nobody can be left with nothing. Yet its failure to prevent children from growing up in poverty inspires far less rage than the fact that some households that rely on benefits do not live in bare cells. The Home Office’s job is, in theory, the security of this state and those who live in it – yet its actions have, in a number of high-profile and morally abhorrent cases, made actual British citizens vastly less secure, for no other reason than that they had the wrong paperwork and skin tone. In each of these cases, concern about the possibility of undeserved entitlements was, for ministers and anti-internet commenters alike, somehow allowed to trump delivery of the actual functions of the state.
The same concern could be seen in discussions before the emergency payments during Covid, and again now that those autumn gas bills are looming. The arguments against both have often focused on the dead-weight cost, the possibility that money will be going to people who do not, in the strictest sense, need it. Those who worry about the theoretical economic damage this might present seem rather less exercised about the very real damage that will be caused by not acting.
But universal services are good, not just because they ensure that no one goes without but also because they give people a sense of getting something back from the state. By doing so, they help create support for policies that ensure that others don’t go without either. Creating more universal entitlements, in fact, may be the best way of addressing the pettiness and meanness that bedevils the system today. That, one suspects, may be another reason why certain Tories don’t approve.