There is now a well established pattern of the Conservative Party kicking the poorest, in reaction to a crisis. It is like a nervous tic. If an asteroid threatened the earth with imminent Armageddon, their reaction – I am quite sure – would be to privatise all observatories, give a tax break to a restrictively defined class of married astronaut and cut all benefits.
Perfectly on cue, after a very successful Labour Party conference, George Osborne announced wide ranging schemes which would once and for all tackle the “something for nothing culture” in the UK. I was very willing to listen. If anyone knows about the “something for nothing culture”, after all, it is a man who inherited his considerable wealth and flipped his taxpayer funded constituency home for a profit of £400k; the only man in history whose CV reads “Data Entry Clerk, Towel Folder, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer”. This comes less than a week after revealing he is launching a legal challenge against the EU, at taxpayers’ expense, to protect grotesque bankers’ bonuses. Protecting the people whose selfish and malicious decisions caused this crisis, while punishing many innocents who lost their jobs as a result of it.
Never mind the fact that workfare schemes of the kind proposed do absolutely nothing to create jobs and their success in getting people to work is questionable, at best. Never mind that no work has been done to model whether such schemes actually cannibalise real jobs and have a deflationary effect on wages. Never mind that, rather than eliminating the “something for nothing culture”, they actually elevate it to the corporate level.
The popularity of such schemes is predicated on a bizarre form of social envy against those less fortunate, built on stories of rhetorical drawn curtains and fictional families no member of which has worked in three generations. “Getting up early in the morning and doing something I hate for money is what I have to do, so you should too, even if it is entirely counterproductive,” seems to be the cri-de-coeur rising from those unhyphenated hardworking people whom the Tories claim to represent.
“Is this the start of a process where people will work for no salary?” asked a BBC News anchor. “Not quite. They will still get benefits,” countered correspondent Norman Smith. But here is a question which has not been answered: If National Insurance no longer insures me against unemployment – one of the key elements for which both I and my employer pay it – why should we still be paying it at precisely the same rate? To cross-subsidise a cut of the top rate of tax? To pay for the pensions’ liability of Royal Mail employees, long after we have sold the assets? To fund legal action which seeks to protect City bonuses?
The whole concept of insurance is that you pay into it, knowing you may never need it, in order to purchase peace of mind. Nobody would stand for a car insurer suddenly turning around and asking its customers to do a bit of free work in its offices in order for their claim to be honoured. It may be emotionally easy to support such schemes if you connect them to rare but overly publicised cases of people defrauding the state. It is less easy to support them if you connect them to, for instance, military personnel which were dumped en masse by the 2010 review, have had great trouble getting back into the civilian workforce and many of whom will soon be coming up to two years of unemployment.
What do these measures, which you may support emotionally, mean for all of us logically? Do they not vitiate one of the most important principles of our society? How certain are you that you will not find yourself cleaning graffiti or sweeping streets in two years’ time, for no remuneration other than the luxury of claiming back from a system into which you have paid for many years? Will your life be better or worse for the lack of that safety net? Now, you may answer all those questions in a way which confirms your support of such punitive measures. But make sure you ask them.
Lloyd George, introducing the National Insurance bill to Parliament in 1911, called it “a measure that will relieve untold misery in myriads of homes—misery that is undeserved; that will help to prevent a good deal of wretchedness”. The only thing that has changed, subtly but insidiously, appears to be public perception of “undeserved”. It has changed to a view that was prevalent before this consensus, reached after years of national soul-searching and strengthened by the consequences of two wars.
This is how an article entitled “Social Parasites” in the Westminster Review of 1904 saw pauperism and its causes:
As philanthropic efforts, backed up by lavish outlay, have failed to deal effectually with our existing pauperism, and its many resulting evils, I would suggest that the causes of such imperfect success might generally be regarded as coming under the following heads:
(1) The fact that money or its equivalent is often too inconsiderately given under the name of charity, that thrift, foresight, self-reliance and self-respect are positively discouraged.
(2) The frequent misdirection and misappropriation of funds subscribed for definite benevolent purposes…
(3) The want of thrift so noticeable in the lower working classes.
(4) The prevailing tendency of the poor to contract early and imprudent marriages.
(5) The gambling tendency rapidly spreading amongst the lower orders.
(6) The universal tendency to drink, owing to absence of moral self-control, amongst the very poor, who find the public-houses… a ready temptation, and drink the only solace for a dreary and monotonous life.
(7) The prevalence and tyranny of trade-unionism.
(8) Foreign competition.
There is not a cigarette paper between this Dickensian view of the dispossessed and the current government’s rhetoric. Regressing a century is not how we should move forward.