“Farewell, fair cruelty” – The Age of anti-welfare


The “Safety Net”

Ian Duncan-Smith has introduced a new system of welfare payments in the UK that seeks to better link payments to the sick, disabled and those out of work to their ability to find work and get paid for work. His (and his government’s stance) is that since the introduction of welfare payments (brought in by the post-WWII Labour government following the Beveridge Report in 1942), the world has changed and welfare has become a “right”  that needs to be changed.

Churchill had previously voiced his view that a safety net be provided to all those in society who fell on hard times. In 2006, Greg Clark  (now Financial Secretary to the Treasury) urged the Tories not to be caught up in Churchillian rhetoric as: “The traditional Conservative vision of welfare as a safety net encompasses another outdated Tory nostrum – that poverty is absolute, not relative. Churchill’s safety net is at the bottom: holding people at subsistence level, just above the abyss of hunger and homelessness.”

Mr Duncan-Smith, according to Peter Oborn, writing in the Daily Telegraph “is animated by a profoundly Christian vision of free will, redemption, and what it means to be human in a fallen and imperfect world.” It is this vision that hearkens back to Churchill and pushes this coalition government in the direction of the 19th Century.

Individual vs. State

The balance in any modern, developed State is to balance the interests of individuals and State (and also at least think through the requirements and abilities of the third sector / civil society). While, as Oborn writes, Margaret Thatcher ignored the welfare system and the NHS by refusing to substantively alter them, and while Blair and most obviously Brown made them more a political football, Duncan-Smith has taken a view that individuals must be given the incentive to work and stand on their feet.

This fits well in a society still in a state of shock following the banking crisis of 2007/8 and where our sovereign debt position is a massive risk for our future.

It fits with Tory doctrine of the 19th Century (although not with the post-WWII consensus that MacMillan and succeeding Tories espoused).

It fits partially with the Liberals (although not necessarily the Social Democrat wing in the Liberal Democrats) in that the balance between individuals and the State should always veer toward the former – although Liberals will usually point to freedoms and open society issues rather than the “incentives” that Duncan-Smith talks about.

Welfare Stands Alone

The problem is that while it is possible that Duncan-Smith has a mission and feels genuinely that welfare needs to be changed, the world is not just about welfare. It is also about economics and opportunity. Attempting to change welfare benefits (which will naturally come down hardest on the weakest sections of society) without successfully managing up the fortunes of the wider economy and critical areas such as education (a crucial force for change and a massive “enabler” in ensuring people have the skills and capabilities that allow them to stand on their feet) cannot work.

Even Samuel Smiles (the 19th Century author of Self-Help) said: “I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses… Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.” (my underlining).

Government is split into different areas of control and it is a real dilemma. If David Cameron really wishes to go back to the 19th Century and bring in welfare reforms that attempt to force people to work or lose benefits, then the same Government has, at least, to generate the capabilities that will allow them to do so.

This means that George Osborne and his Ministers have to attack our substantial problems of growth (or the lack of it) while we seem to be entering a Japanese-style lost decade.

This means that Michael Gove (himself on a mission) has to ensure that those areas of greatest need in education (which are the areas most adversely impacted by Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms) receive the resources (investment and brainpower) that they need. This could, for example, mean forcing top quality schools (from private and public sectors) to link up with worst performing schools in the country much as Lord Adonis tried to do voluntarily as he describes in his recent book “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools”.

Of course, this means jointly pursuing policies as a Government rather than addressing individual issues one at a time because individual Ministers want to make a name for themselves.

Of course, this is the job of a Prime Minister (and in a Coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister) to see that the key decisions of each Ministry complement each other. They have failed to see how disjointed it all is and failed to understand the changes that have been put in place since the 19th Century that repels the drive to go back in time.

Back to the Poor Laws

There is a real danger that the failure to articulate a vision by our politicians, allied to an economic position that is perilous is leading the UK (or at least England) back to the Poor laws as articulated in 1834. This was the age of the workhouse as described so well by Charles Dickens. The 19th Century zeal, which Duncan-Smith is bringing to bear, is allied to monetarism and austerity together with an education philosophy which focuses on individual schools (Academies) without much understanding of how to best ensure the worst ones thrive.

This means that a “perfect storm” is likely to erupt: an economy of austerity, a goodbye to welfare and a lack of educational opportunity where it is needed. This may be seen in the future as a Government that forgot the riots of 2011 much like the riots against the Poor Laws in the 1830’s.

Modern times deserve modern remedies and better leadership

The challenge for any Government in a post-2007 world is to sufficiently understand the role it places in providing the underpinning for a thriving society. This is not the old Tory rule from the top – where the top 3% get the resources and everyone hopes for a trickle down effect. The class system in the UK – no longer just three – may have been dispersed but the political class may not have yet picked up on their duties.

Whether or not many welfare recipients have pro-actively taken themselves out of the work markets and work ethics, Government’s job is to enable them to come back into the market. This means motivating and educating at the same time as gradually changing the rewards structure.

Tell a workforce that they are pathetic and they will become so. Tell people that they are work-shy scroungers and they will not co-operate. Cameron and Osborne (and Gove) understand little about leadership. They want to show leadership by forcing issues not by motivation (or nudging – I understand they read that book – shame they never read any on good leadership) in the same way that the Upper Classes ruled in the 19th Century.

Modern times need a government that motivates and has a vision that is constant throughout – not a bunch of managers with no sense of leadership.

This should mean that rhetoric changes to encouragement not estrangement in a way that Miliband’s desire for “One Nation” (Disraeli) is meant to work. Within that rhetoric (maybe the start of some vision), the economic policies of sustainable growth have to be applied not just hope that austerity will somehow work and shift us to private economy growth; within that rhetoric, an education system that drives the worst schools to function along with the connectivity with local people (including parents); within that rhetoric, a welfare system that rewards such involvement in the community – not just salaried work.

The latter means that people should be able in a modern society to be able to work in a variety of areas – within civil society – rather than for a pittance in a salaried job. This also means spending time with kids where the worst performing schools are victims of poverty and estrangement of parents and local leadership.

This is joined up Government where each part of government takes fully into account what is happening in other sectors of society. It is not what we have now.

Farewell, fair cruelty was said by Viola in Twelfth Night – Viola was trying it on – a woman pretending to be a man.

Duncan-Smith is worried about welfare beneficiaries who shouldn’t be getting welfare – people who are not what they say they are.

This government is pretending to be showing leadership – it isn’t. It is merely repeating the mistakes of their forebears from 200 years ago.

Farewell welfare, indeed. We run the risk of becoming an anti-welfare society that alienates huge sections of it while the rest of government stands aside. Time for some vision and leadership and for this government to understand the impact one part has on another – Duncan-Smith needs Osborne and Gove to help him succeed.  Malvolio’s experiences in Twelfth Night may also be educational for Ian Duncan-Smith – he was also a man more sinned against than sinning.

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One thought on ““Farewell, fair cruelty” – The Age of anti-welfare

  1. Hi Jeff,

    This government shows no leadership. To lead people through a forest, you go first, not at the back beating them with a stick. We are going back to Victorian values where the working class did all the work and the upper classes lived in mansions. I’ve recently read about how the Victorian gentlemen, took on working class girls as servants and then repeatedly abused and raped them. We seem to have that sort of abuse creeping back into society as people are deemed too powerful or popular to be even investigated by the police. The former members of the Bullingdon Club are elitist bullies and the people are now realising they have to get rid of them. It’s is unfortunate that Labour isn’t offering coherent polices as an alternative. We have no choice but print money and inflate away the debts now, but then we do need a sensible economic policy based on adjusting to what is happening in the global economy.

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