Let’s have a proper debate about the welfare state

Hooked on poverty porn, getting the unelected Lords to do their dirty work... there’s little progressive about today’s welfare-defenders.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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What is worse: elected politicians proposing to reform the welfare state, or unelected Lords, cheered on by liberals, unilaterally shooting down such reform? It’s the latter. Even if you aren’t a fan of Lib-Con plans to trim the welfare bill (I think it’s daft to imagine such trimming will reverse the economic downturn), you should be far more concerned by the patronising and profoundly undemocratic turn that the so-called radical side in this debate has taken. Today, the defenders of welfare are doing far more harm to what we might term progressive politics than the right-wingers seeking to rethink welfarism.

Yesterday, to the chagrin of liberal activists, the House of Lords failed to support a peer-proposed amendment to the government’s welfare reform bill. Having inflicted a triple defeat on the bill last week, by voting 224 to 186 against proposals relating to disability and incapacity allowances, the Lords had won a special place in the hearts of leftists opposed to the Lib-Cons. These unelected lords and ladies are ‘the only decent politicians left’, chirped one commentator. Another described them as ‘a blessing’. These observers will no doubt be disappointed that the Lords yesterday failed to deliver a fourth blow to the government’s plans, though hopefully they’ll have learned a lesson about how daft it is to rely on the whims of the rich and aloof when pursuing political agendas.

There are two problems with the notion that state welfare is so sacred it should never be reformed, even if that means getting the most undemocratic layer of the British political class to ringfence it from those grubby inhabitants of the elected Commons. Firstly, such an allergic reaction to the idea of having a serious debate about the size and shifting nature of state welfare means that the problems associated with welfarism – which are myriad – are never clarified, far less tackled. And secondly, calling on the unelected second chamber to fight the Commons over welfare is an insult to democracy and to the British public, who are reduced to the level of paupers who need good-hearted Lords to fight their battles and preserve their pennies.

You don’t have to be a fellow traveller of the Lib-Cons (I’ve never voted for either party) to recognise that the welfare system in Britain does need reform – radical reform. The problem with the government’s proposed reforms is that they’re driven by a penny-pinching mentality, designed to save the state cash. The real motivation behind welfare reform should be a humanist one – a recognition that intensive welfarism, the intrusion of the ‘caring state’ into every aspect of less well-off people’s lives, has damaged both individuals and communities and therefore should be questioned and challenged and, in part, done away with.

Of course, all civilised societies should provide for those who, for whatever reason, lack the capacity to feed and clothe and house themselves. Discretely distributed as a fund for those too poor or disabled to provide for themselves, welfare can be a good thing. The problem with the ever-growing welfare state in Britain is its permanency, the way it is now used to sustain, forever, huge swathes of people, including able-bodied people, and the impact that this has on people’s view both of themselves and their communities. When you’re encouraged to become reliant on the state rather than on your own wits or your own mates, your sense of individual resourcefulness declines, and your feeling of attachment to and reliance upon your community becomes corroded.

The social destructiveness of the cult of welfarism can best be seen in that part of welfare that is now most feverishly defended by liberal campaigners: the realm of incapacity and disability benefits. In recent decades, more and more people of working age have been redefined by the welfare state as ‘incapable’ of working or as disabled. This is, to say the least, curious at a time when we are healthier and longer-living than ever before. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Britain has one of the highest rates of incapacity/disability benefit-claiming in the Western world. Young people in Britain are more than twice as likely to claim sickness benefits as their Western European counterparts. Strikingly, there has been a big shift from the unemployment camp into the ‘incapable’ camp. In the 1980s, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit was nearly four times higher than the number claiming some kind of disability benefit; by 1997 the numbers were equal; today, the number claiming a disability benefit exceeds the number claiming unemployment benefit. Now, more than three million people are categorised as incapable of working, out of a non-working population of around five million.

Of course, there are many people who have serious impairments or illnesses that prevent them from working, and they should be provided for generously by society. But it’s pretty clear that, in recent decades, society has cynically cast the ‘incapacity’ net ever-wider, leading to more and more people effectively being rebranded as physically or mentally deficient rather than simply unemployed. That way, the unemployment stats can be massaged, and society’s failure to provide people with gainful employment can be redefined as an individual rather than a social failing – apparently it is because these people are weak, pathetic and ‘incapable’ that they cannot work, not because of the structural malaise of capitalist society and the lack of vision amongst those who govern it.

In a twisted irony, the leftists now fighting tooth-and-nail to protect incapacity/disability benefit from any criticism or reform are actually upholding a right-wing creation. Invalidity Benefit, which later became Incapacity Benefit, and which is now mixed together with various disability allowances, was first introduced under Ted Heath’s Tory government in 1971. The number of claimants grew exponentially under the Thatcher and Major governments in the 1980s and 90s – in 1981, 463,000 men and women were claiming invalidity/incapacity benefit; by the mid-1990s it was more than one million. The cynical rebranding of capable men and women as incapable was a useful tool for Tory governments that were throwing people out of work but which didn’t want the unemployment figures to look too shocking. It is remarkable that so-called progressives should now go to the wall to protect this cynical, Tory-invented idea that massive numbers of working men and women are actually too useless or mental or weak to work.

The end result of the spread of the concept of incapacity, and the relativistisation of the category of disability to include increasing numbers of people, is that individuals become both decommissioned and alienated. They are put out to pasture, told that they cannot work, which frequently becomes a self-fulfilling thing; and through their reliance on the faceless state, they become separated from their own communities, coming to be more dependent on the pity and favour of outsiders than on the support and tips of people they know and see every day.

Even worse than uncritically defending such a pernicious system is defending it in an undemocratic fashion. Today, the pro-welfare lobby, clearly disillusioned not only with the Commons but also with the dumb people who elect it, have turned to the unelected Lords to try to preserve the entire welfare state. Radical campaign groups and trade unions call on their members to ‘Adopt a Peer’ – that is, email a lord begging him to vote against government plans on the NHS and welfare – while commentators sing the praises of the peers, saying, yes, they might be ‘ennobled and stuck in an anachronistic institution’ but they are nonetheless willing to ‘speak up for the very poorest and sickest among us’.

A quick glance at history should be enough to shoot down the batty idea that the Lords are potential class warriors defending poor people’s welfare from evil elected officials. The constitutional crisis of 1909-1911 was brought about by the Lords’ refusal to back an early welfare package – Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith’s ‘People’s Budget’ – and the Asquith government’s subsequent decision to override the Lords helped to define and bolster the ideal of democracy in Britain. Today’s welfare-defenders seem keen to turn the clock back, to revert to a time when the Lords, described by Thomas Paine as the ‘remains of aristocratical tyranny’, were expected to reprimand the Commons. Even if you do your peer-cheering in the name of standing up for ‘the very poorest and sickest’ (what’s with all the patronising Dickensian lingo?), the end result will be the same: the further concentration of moral authority and political power in the hands of a tyrannical few.

With their poverty-porn images of families too sick and destitute to care for themselves, and their love of Lords who stand up and make grandstanding speeches about ‘helping the poor’, today’s welfare-defenders are taking us into Downton Abbey territory – back to a pre-welfare state world of poor laws and posh pity where the very rich were pleaded with to help the lame and the weak. That is the essence of much modern welfare thinking. ‘Please, my lord, stop the evil politicians from taking away my grub and my blankets.’ Screw that. The less well-off are more than capable of looking after themselves, and don’t need to have democracy overturned in their name by unelected twits and their dizzy cheerleaders in the media.

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


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