Social security came about precisely because we evolved to recognise a need for a social safety net to protect citizens when they encountered economic difficulties, because we learned last century that we are all potentially vulnerable, and that this isn’t anything to do with a person’s characteristics – ordinary people are not to blame for socio-economic circumstances, or for becoming ill and disabled. Unemployment, accident and illness can happen to anyone.
In 1992, Peter Lilley, the somewhat salacious Tory department of social security secretary said he had “got a little list” of people to stereotype as scroungers. Lilley amused the Conservative Party conference with a plan to “close down the something for nothing society”, delivered in the form of a parody of the Lord High Executioner’s “little list” song from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan:
“I’ve got a little list / Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out / And who never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s those who make up bogus claims / In half a dozen names / And councillors who draw the dole / To run left-wing campaigns / They never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue / And dads who won’t support the kids / of ladies they have … kissed / And I haven’t even mentioned all those sponging socialists / I’ve got them on my list / And there’s none of them be missed / There’s none of them be missed….”
I remember that subsequently, Spitting Image portrayed Lilley as a commandant at a Nazi concentration camp and commentator Mark Lawson of The Independent said that if Lilley remained as Secretary of State for Social Security, it would be “equivalent to Mary Whitehouse becoming madam of a brothel.”
The social groups who featured on that hate list are some of the poorest and most disempowered in our society: lone parents, mental health service users, refugees and asylum seekers, the unemployed, and young and homeless people. They have few, if any advocates in parliament on the right, and apparently, few votes are to be lost by attacking them.
Such are the Tory prejudiced, divisive and self-serving attacks on welfare and the purposely devalued social groups it supports. This punitive approach to welfare reform generally has the opposite effect to that promised by Tories such as Lilley, creating additional bureaucratic costs and waste, and setting one group against another. This is a deliberate undermining of social cohesion, cooperation and collective responsibility. It isolates many, who by common consent need support. This approach is also designed to deter those people with legitimate entitlement to support, and to justify an unnecessary and inappropriate harassment, stigmatising and denigrating those it should be helping.
Welfare is the provision of a minimal level of well-being and social support for all citizens. In other words, it was conceived to alleviate absolute poverty and meet basic survival needs. This is based on a model of human developmental psychology focusing on the recognised stages of growth in humans, and is founded on the central idea that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual may be motivated to fulfil any other needs and betterment. As a minimal condition for making choices and being responsible, people must have all of their basic physiological needs met. For example, a homeless person’s job choices might be constrained by the lack of an address for correspondence or even a place to take a shower. Understanding such humanist concepts was central to the development equality policies and human rights.
The welfare state expands on these concepts to include services such as universal healthcare. In most developed countries welfare is provided by the government. Benefits are based on a compulsory supra-governmental insurance contribution system, the National Insurance system in the UK was established in 1911.
The Beveridge Report in 1942, essentially recommended a national, compulsory, flat rate insurance scheme which would combine health care, unemployment and retirement benefits. After its victory in the United Kingdom general election, 1945 the Labour Party pledged to eradicate the five Giant Evils, and undertook policy measures to provide universal support for the people of the United Kingdom “from the cradle to the grave.”
Social Security policy resulted in the development of what was considered to be a state responsibility towards its citizens, and a citizen responsibility towards each other. Welfare is a social protection that is necessary. There was also an embedded doctrine of fostering equity in the policy.
In addition to the central services of education, health, unemployment and sickness allowances, the welfare state also involved increasing redistributive taxation, increasing regulation of industry, food, and housing, better safety regulations, weights and measures controls. The principle of health care “free at the point of use” became a pivotal idea of the welfare state, which later Conservative governments, who were critical of this, were unable to reverse. Prescription charges were introduced by the Conservative Government in 1952.
The Welfare State period lasted from around 1945 until the Thatcher government began to privatise public institutions in the 1980s, although some features remain today, including compulsory National Insurance contributions, and the provision of old age pensions. It was Conservative governments that introduced constraints to eligibility for benefits via means testing.
The Labour Party won a clear victory in 1945 based on their programme of building provision for citizens with the Welfare State. However, since the 1980s the Conservative government had begun to reduce provisions in England: for example, free eye tests for all were stopped and prescription charges for drugs have constantly risen since they were first introduced by the Conservatives in 1951.
During the Thatcher era, the English High Tory journalist T. E. Utley, wrote that the welfare state was “an arrangement under which we all largely cease to be responsible for our own behaviour and in return become responsible for everyone else’s.” However, even people who erroneously believe that the present welfare system is corrosive to individual responsibility accept the urgency of preventing hunger and destitution. Yet the Tories have persisted with their pre-Victorian rhetoric of the “undeserving, idle poor.”
There is a moral as well as a logical absurdity in this Conservative claim, tied up with notions of citizenship. It’s a continual contradiction of principle within Conservative ideology that small state logic applies to the most vulnerable, who are left to the worst ravages of “market forces” without state protection, but such laissez faire principles don’t extend to the wealthy. Conservatives systematically fail to correct market failures in the interests of the public, but they do intervene to protect the interests of the minority of wealthy citizens. Similarly, replacing state run public services with profit incentivised private providers is an intervention. These partisan interferences distort the “market mechanism,” contrary to Tory claims.
As Ed Miliband noted, when Cameron declared We are raising more money for the rich:
“David Cameron and George Osborne believe the only way to persuade millionaires to work harder is to give them more money.’
‘But they also seem to believe that the only way to make you (ordinary people) work harder is to take money away.”
So “market forces” are adjusted and fixed to benefit the wealthy and penalise the poor.
The sociologist T.H. Marshall wrote in 1965, “it is generally agreed that… the overall responsibility for the welfare of the citizens must remain with the state.” Marshall’s own concept of “social citizenship” – which put forward a new model of citizenship based on economic and social (as well as political) rights – was characteristic of this collective approach to social welfare after 1945. There was a clear and optimistic sense of rebuilding a better Britain.
It’s worth noting that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights recognises socio-economic human rights, such as the right to education, right to housing, right to adequate standard of living, right to health and the right to science and culture. Economic, social and cultural rights are recognised and protected in several international and regional human rights instruments. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is the primary international legal source of economic, social and cultural rights. All member states have a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights of the public and are expected to take “progressive action” towards their fulfilment. The current government have made it clear that they hold such rights in high contempt, and in terms of socio-economic policy, they are driven by an extremely regressive rather than progressive ideology.
The social citizenship model remained unchallenged until the emergence of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader (1975) and then Prime Minister (1979). Thatcherism promised low taxes, less state intervention, and lower levels of public spending, Thatcher introduced cuts in spending on housing and stricter eligibility rules for benefits. This was the Conservative beginning of the end of collective provision.
The Tories have steadily eroded our provision for the poorest and the most vulnerable citizens – our collective safety net, and their rhetoric is about erasing our evolved, civilised collective approach from our social memory. We are being steadily de-civilised, our historical, collective learning and social history is being re-written, and the Tories would have us turn into a society of dog eat dog psychopaths if they get their way.
The Tories have a cynical view of human nature, and presume people will always act out of self-interest, and whilst they may well avoid disappointment, Conservatives will never understand people by assuming that is all that motivates them. History has demonstrated that when human beings are given the chance to meet their fundamental needs and express themselves fully, they are, by nature, interested in the well-being of society and all its members.
I don’t believe that we have limited ability in terms of human endeavour to achieve positive change. Conservatives see the traditional order as enduring and sacred: a trust to be passed from generation to generation. They see the hierarchy that they always engineer as the result of “natural merit.” To be a Tory is to believe this “natural order” of things.
Survival of the wealthiest
Yet Conservative ideology directs an openly hierarchical society and promotes social inequalities, both materially and in terms of social esteem. Tories believe that a “good” society is one where people would simply accept their place. And that is wherever the Tories place them – “The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate.”
There are strong links between the right wing idea of “competitive individualism,” laissez faire capitalism, Social Darwinism, eugenics, nationalism and fascism/authoritarianism. Social Darwinists generally argue that the “strong” should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease.
Most of these views emphasise competition between individuals in a laissez-faire capitalism context; but similar concepts have motivated ideas of eugenics, racism, imperialism fascism, Nazism and struggle between national or racial groups. Eugenics is state interference in the engineering of the “survival of the fittest (wealthiest)”. That is happening here in the UK, with Tory policies like the welfare “reforms”, which are extremely punitive towards sick and disabled citizens in particular – all too often denying them the means of meeting basic survival needs. The Tories think that wealth is a measure of virtue, and that poor people deserve poverty.
Welfare isn’t simply a matter of societal rights but also a matter of life and death. People are dying, and are being made homeless, we are seeing a massive increase in food poverty, malnutrition and people are committing suicide because they are so desperate. Yet the Tories continue to present the victim-blame script. It’s a script that is used almost always to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal power structures.
And it’s a script that plays off a weakness of our Western worldview, our inclination to assign negative moral value to those who suffer – what psychologists call the “just world fallacy .”
It is often said that you can judge a society on how it treats its weaker members, and in that respect the current government have failed so many. What kind of society is it that allows over a million young people to struggle on the dole, stifling their potential and their creativity, instead of spending the money on helping them to find meaningful work – and then blames them?
What kind of society allows a government to re-brand unemployment and poverty as personal failure, when we know that this government’s policies have caused unemployment to rise, just like every other Tory government. Thatcher at least admitted she had intentionally created high unemployment to keep inflation low, however, that “strategy” failed and we had high inflation and high unemployment. Conservative governments always create a large, disposable army of labour, which they like to keep as desperate as possible to drive down wages, working conditions and to stultify collective bargaining.
Raising unemployment is an extremely effective way of reducing the strength of the working classes, and what is being engineered in Marxist terms is a crisis of capitalism which creates a reserve army of labour and has allowed Tory donors – the capitalist class – to make very high profits.
What kind of society allows sick and disabled people to be harassed – where they are called in for crude, tick-box tests to prove that they are “really” ill or disabled, one where that “assessment” is designed purposefully to remove their lifeline benefits, one where most are found “fit for work” with many dying a few weeks or months later? And when people succeed in appealing wrongful decisions, they are almost immediately sent for a reassessment?
This is happening here in the UK. The Tory welfare “reforms” are extremely punitive towards people who can’t find work and sick and disabled citizens, all too often denying them the means to meet basic survival needs. We urgently need to overturn this by forcefully challenging the Tory myths that poison any attempts at progressive change. Human suffering, loss of dignity and death may have many facets, but all of them are equally unforgiving, and when imposed by humans on fellow humans, all are equally unforgivable.
Some Tory benefit myths addressed:
Mythbuster: Tall tales about welfare reform – Red pepper
Voters ‘brainwashed by Tory welfare myths’, shows new poll – The Independent
Welfare Myth Number One – Benefits Are Expensive – Dr Simon Duffy
Who really benefits from welfare – Dr Simon Duffy
Where the cuts are targeted – Dr Simon Duffy
The myth of the “welfare scrounger” – The New Statesman
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone