The idea of “reform” has a long, honourable tradition in Britain: individuals and social movements committed to extending the franchise throughout the 19th century, campaigns to mitigate the cruelties of early industrialism: the abridgement of hours of labour, protection for women and children, improved sanitation and housing. Later reformers and radicals introduced a system of “welfare” to defend people, not only against the vagaries of the economic cycle, but also against the known vicissitudes of life – sickness, ageing and bereavement.
The word “reform” was revived with great fanfare by the coalition government in 2010; but this no longer referred to the damage inflicted by an economic and social system. It now claimed to deal with the baleful effects of the welfare state, paradoxically, the result of earlier “reforms” the government is eager to dismantle. Such a project was possible, because while only the ghost of industrial manufacture remained in Britain, the structures of welfare, designed to humanise it, were still in place. It is this tottering relic which, like the factories long fallen into rubble and splintered glass, is now ripe for development by the realtors of modernity.
The rhetoric of government is a mocking echo of the passion of those who fought chronic want and insecurity in the first industrial era. People are now to be “set free”, “liberated”, “released”, not from slum conditions and rapacious employers, but from a grim dependency on welfare, a fatalistic acceptance of “benefits” due to long-term – even inter-generational – unemployment, what was called, in a less squeamish time, “hereditary pauperism”.
Young people are to be saved from “sitting at home and falling into depression and despair”, emancipated from a “culture” of mendicancy upon the public purse, and led into the perpetual sunshine of free markets.
In this enterprise, David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith presented themselves as liberators of the people. The “evils” they addressed are the belief that “it pays not to work”, the “something for nothing culture” conviction that “the world owes us a living”, and the “culture of entitlement” created by the welfare state.
Their changes to the benefit system would help people “escape the poverty trap and get on in life”. The proud, self-reliant British are to be released from the bondage of benefits. The heroic tone of the government’s proposals suggests a usurpation of the epic project which Labour once conceived of redressing the imbalance of power between capital and labour; but the new objective is freedom from oppressive welfare dependency, an evil confronted by today’s fearless warriors for liberty.
George Osborne reiterated the theme in his Budget speech of July 2015. He spoke of “transforming the lives of those trapped in welfare”; he made it sound, insultingly, like the situation of miners caught by a rockfall in some industrial catastrophe, while he, no doubt in a conspicuous hi-vis vest, leads the rescue party.
The next sequence in this enfranchisement of the people is a concession that, however benign the intent of earlier legislation to free them from fear and want, it has led to a situation “which cannot be cured by money”, or “state hand-outs” as they are now known.
This is audacious, coming as it does from those whose ownership, indeed worship, of wealth is remarkable. Their vocabulary of “wealth creationism” has distinctly religious undertones; and for them, the “generation” of wealth is the aetiological myth of capitalism; a profane Book of Genesis.
Cameron elaborated it in June 2012. He said ‘The truth is we can’t throw money at the problems and paper over the cracks. You can give a drug addict more money in benefits, but that is unlikely to help them out of poverty, indeed it could perpetuate their addiction. You can pump more cash into chaotic homes, but if the parents are still neglectful, the kids are still playing truant, they’re going to stay poor in the most important senses of the word. So this government is challenging the old narrow view that the key to beating poverty is simply more redistribution.’
No clearer enunciation is possible of the doctrine that the relief of poverty lies in withdrawal of State bounty from those who have no need of “safety nets” (a persistent image that – perhaps correctly – attributes advanced circus skills to the poor).
The credo could not be more explicit: while the rich must be encouraged in their mystical quest to create wealth by heaping more treasures upon them, the poor must be set free by the withdrawal of the meagre resources at their command. Thus, claimed Cameron, the causes of poverty will be treated at source – “debt, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction”.
It cannot be said that the government does not spin a good yarn: consummate storytellers, they extol the heroics of capitalism and the threat to it from its ill-wishers and enemies, whether in the form of organised labour or “do-gooders”; a pejorative term that suggests that the hour of the doers of evil has once more sounded.
If the government really believes the symptoms it identifies are “causes” of poverty, this shows the shallowness of its understanding of society, the very existence of which, in any case, Margaret Thatcher had long ago thrown into doubt.
But the triumphant conclusion lay in what comes next: “The only thing that really beats poverty, long-term, is work.”
Work, no matter how futile or degrading, is the panacea: in this they revert to the Elizabethan Poor Law, which insisted all able-bodied paupers be “set on work”; but they lack even the humanity of that archaic legislation. Their true antecedents are the Poor Law Commission and the coercive policies embodied in the Act of 1834.
Armed with these ideological revelations, the project was, according to the government in 2015, far from complete. It would require another “term” (a language borrowed from school) to “finish the job” (a lexicon of workmanlike efficiency).
The people of Britain, persuaded of the nobility of the cause, granted them this extension.
It is, perhaps, fitting, that Duncan Smith should himself have fallen victim to the “reforms” of which he has been such a strong proponent; particularly in the light of the power of his own (until now somnolent) social conscience to “reform” his view of welfare claimants with disability.
Whether this change of heart is a consequence of personal animus against the Chancellor, a desire to devote himself to the lofty cause of Brexit, or an alibi for escaping the consequences of universal credit – unwieldy, expensive and possibly unmanageable – we shall probably never know.
Jeremy Seabrook is the author of Cut Out: Living Without Welfare, published in June by Pluto Press