David Cameron has recently gone off on a rather odd track. His latest attempt at appearing to be on the side of ‘normal people’ and being a ’strong leader’ is to threaten people – with removing their food and home unless they accept the least worst of the minimum wage jobs. On top of that, single parents who are spending every hour looking after their kids are the new ’scroungers’ and will be required to undertake community work or have their social security cut. And the evil Tories are not alone on this. The debate over social security has occupied governments for decades and all parties have joined in the ’scrounger bashing’.
After posting on the Birmingham University Conservative Future blog (I know, forgive me), in response to some crazy idea where looking eager would determine whether you can eat or not, and you’re deducted money for being irresponsible and stupid by doing something like having a baby, I thought I might make a few comments on my views on social security.
I want to celebrate the fact that in our society we support people that need help.
In 1945, Clem Attlee took a number of world changing decisions and established a welfare state worthy of its name. The Beveridge Report into social reconstruction after the war identified five ‘giants’ that needed to be slayed on the way to a better future. They were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
Now, I was taught that great inventions of the Welfare State were created to solve these problems. They were, respectivey, social security, the National Health Service, comprehensive free education, the housing revolution and full employment. I’m incredibly proud of the democratic socialist foundations of our nation. Even when trying to take the soul of it, even the British right and the Tory Party can’t move away from the fact that the UK is absolutely committed to the principles that we have an obligation to each other and that we should fund a supportive state infrastructure through general taxation.
Social security and the right of people that were unfortunate enough not to be in work to be supported by their peers is, or should be, as sacred as the NHS. But unfortunately, we thrive on wanting to force people that need help to survive to live in some form of medieval spinsterdom. They may not enjoy such frivolities as hair conditioner. They must not go on holiday. Their children may under no circumstances go on any school trips. We have this unexplainable feeling that the people may only enjoy social security if they are satisfactorily humble and survive just above poverty – No Frills packet ham, drink only water and so on. They must also be eager, damn it, but also apologetic. It makes us happier if they are always looking for the next minimum wage job with an expression of shame on their face for daring to ask for help.
But I believe that society wants people to live, not to survive. Human beings need to travel, they need new clothes, they need entertainment and the ability to speak to friends, they need toiletries, and the internet. They have bills to pay – electricity, gas, phone, electricity and so on. They do need holidays and they do want to celebrate Christmas and Easter and so on. That is how humans operate. But the tone of the debate wants everyone to survive on less and less but try harder and harder to earn it.
Why? I still passionately believe that we must still work to eliminate Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness because the battles aren’t won yet. But Want and Idleness are different social needs. We can’t obsfucate children being fed because it serves our own dogmatic higher principle to punishing the unemployed. We must always look to what the result is, not the intention of the actors. That isn’t necessarily the easiest pill to swallow for libetarians, but the day we reject the way that people live their lives because it doesn’t fit into our political principles is the start of the end. I won’t look at a starving and homeless person outside a warm shop and think that they brought it on themselves, when the people spending money in the shop can change that life.
And I know that the chief opposition to social security is the dependency culture. I always think that this is an odd argument, which only applies to money; noone is ever accused of being dependent on the NHS, or their state pension, or council housing – society is happy with people using them. But anyway…
Idleness needs to be solved. Things like the raising of the school leaving age, the New Deal, the minimum wage, flexible working and maternity pay, employment rights legislation and so on are recent ways that people are being urged into choosing their own future. But we can’t make the dialogue ‘do this work or stop eating’ because a lifetime of minimum wage jobs is never something that people will embrace eagerly. They just won’t. Three strikes of ‘pack/clean/watch/carry’ is an arrogant and elitist way that we force the poor of society to accept their place. Totally unacceptable.
So, after a lengthy blog, I wanted to say how much the debate needs to change. Cameron is letting the nation down my turning ‘those in need’ into ‘those that are idle’ and until we change the debate we won’t solve the problem.