The welfare state is not our ‘guardian angel’

Both the critics and defenders of welfarism are blind to the detrimental impact it is having on autonomy and the human spirit.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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This week, by accident, I caught some of that BBC1 show Saints and Scroungers.

It features a loud little bald man exposing the ‘scroungers’ who fraudulently claim welfare benefits they are not entitled to, before praising the ‘saints’ in welfare services who help pensioners, single mums and other down-at-heel people to access benefits they are entitled to. The show has caused a stink, with some accusing it of promoting a view of people on benefits as scrounging con-artists. But I was far more alarmed by the ‘saints’ section, where welfare workers were described as ‘guardian angels’ helping to ‘turn poor people’s lives around’. I mean, if you’re going to be insulted on TV, surely it’s better to be demonised rather than super-patronised?

Saints and Scroungers, for all its awfulness, captures the essence of the welfare debate today. On one side, mainly amongst the right-wing, only the extreme problems with the benefits system – such as incapacity benefit or the way some sections of society have become reliant on handouts – are held up as problematic. And on the other side, the largely left-wing side, the welfare state is looked upon as a saintly institution, a sacred cow, against which no insult or slur can be tolerated. Neither side is ready to pose truly awkward or probing questions about benefits, and to ask whether, 70 years after it was instituted as a post-Second World War initiative, we really want to continue living in a ‘welfare society’.

Following the Conservative Party conference, many liberal defenders of the welfare state are accusing David Cameron and Co. of taking a Thatcher-style cudgel to the benefits system. They are a ‘chainsaw mob’, says one commentator, cutting everything they can: ‘They can’t contain a cocksure excitement with their brand new chainsaws. They enjoy it and it shows.’ Maybe cocksureness is in the eye of the beholder – because in truth, the most striking thing about the Tory attitude to welfare (it would be stretching things to call it a strategy) is how tentative it is. Cameron has not taken a chainsaw to the welfare system so much as a scalpel, promising to cut off little bits here and there while avoiding doing anything that might damage his party’s carefully crafted new image as Caring and Not Thatcherite.

Cameron’s welfare cuts do not spring from an overarching plan – whether of the economic or ideological variety – but rather look like exercises in spin. The announcement at the party conference that the traditionally universal child benefit would be cut for parents who earn more than £43,875 a year was clearly designed as a very public pronouncement that the Tories are no longer ‘the nasty party’ that attacks the less well-off. In a desperate bid not to be seen to be attacking the poor, the Conservatives cut from the middle classes instead, in a move that wasn’t economically essential but which was politically useful inasmuch as it sent a message about the New Tories.

Likewise, the Conservatives’ new drive against incapacity benefit – with pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith arguing that 500,000 of the people claiming that benefit could actually start work right away – shows that when it comes to welfare they are only interested in attacking easy targets. Incapacity benefit is the most extreme expression of what people refer to as ‘welfare dependency’. It is viewed by many as problematic, because it involves inciting tens of thousands of actually able-bodied people effectively to conceive of themselves as ill. In taking on this extreme form of welfarism, the Tories can once again appear to be taking action while avoiding being tarred with the Thatcher brush. Far from cocksure, their tinkering with the benefits system reveals their lack of an economic or ideological project, and their profound unwillingness to tackle, head on, the welfare cornerstone of British society.

The other side in the debate – the side opposed to Cameron’s cuts – is equally uninspired. Its supporters treat the welfare system as the great unchallengeable institution of British society. Anyone who criticises it is anti-poor and right-wing. It is important to note that this defence of welfarism, this erection of an intellectual forcefield around the postwar way of doing things, is based less on a die-hard commitment to all things welfarish than on the left’s utter inability to imagine how society might look and function without this safety net. It is their failure to understand how social relations would work without benefit payments, their lack of faith in such things as spontaneous social bonds and real community solidarity, that leads them to view welfare almost as a religious institution – literally as the ‘guardian angel’ for the otherwise unpredictable, incapable poor.

Yet from a humanist perspective – rather than from a money-saving, anti-scrounger one – there is much about welfare that can be, and ought to be, called into question. To take the extreme: incapacity benefit (IB) should definitely be rethought, not as a money-saving exercise, but as a way of challenging the welfare state’s problematic redefinition of the relationship between the state and the individual, as a way of recovering important ideals such as autonomy and solidarity. Properly instituted (ironically enough) during the Thatcher years, IB is explicitly about encouraging people to accommodate to the fact of being unemployed, to see their lack of employment not as a political problem that might be fixed through protest or reform or economic development, but as a natural state, a product of their own inability to hold down a job.

It is no coincidence that the numbers of men claiming IB rose exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, increasing every single year (apart from 1997), from 463,000 men in 1981 to 1,276,000 in 1999 (today, an estimated two million people, including women, claim IB). This is because in the 1980s, when thousands of working-class men were being thrown out of work, they were being encouraged to see themselves as sick, as physically or mentally incapacitated rather than as being deprived of work by social and economic factors.

It was inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of working men had actually fallen gravely ill. Rather, the welfare state was cynically soaking up these people, desperately attempting to offset their potential political anger at being unemployed by inviting them to view their predicament as a health-based problem instead. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: told they are ‘incapable’, left to watch self-pity-inducing daytime TV, it’s not surprising that some people come to conceive of themselves as genuinely unable to work. It might be right that half-a-million of these people could start work tomorrow, but in the act of rethinking certain benefits we shouldn’t leave unchallenged the backward political and cultural trends that led to an explosion of IB in the first place.

Incapacity is only the most extreme form of such welfarism. In other areas, too, the spread of the welfare state is further harming social bonds, community solidarity, and even individual self-reliance and belief, to the extent that welfare has become increasingly therapeutic, too. And yet on one side we have a government only chipping away at aspects of welfare because it is so scared of how people will respond, and on the other side various commentators and activists are passionately defending welfarism because their lack of faith in people’s capacities is so profound, so deep-rooted, that they cannot comprehend how we would cope without permanent external assistance. We urgently need a new debate, one based neither on penny-pinching or people-pitying, but on the question of whether a social institution brought into existence 70 years ago is really the best we can expect today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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