It’s among the confused middle-class warriors for welfarism. They have failed, and failed miserably, to reckon with one of the iron laws of modern politics – which is that the more reliant you are on the welfare state, the more experience you have of it and the less you love it. And by extension, the further removed you are from the welfare state, the less experience you have of it, the more you can fantasise about its virtues and grow to love it. Or at least their imaginary versions of it.
By Brendan O'Neill
Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has become the pin-up hate figure of well-to-do Leftists in recent weeks. They claim his trimming of certain welfare payments will spell “doom” for the poor, potentially propelling them into what Polly Toynbee melodramatically calls “beggary”.
Duncan Smith’s claim that he could live on £53 a week if he “had to” – after a benefits claimant told the BBC that that’s how much he gets by on – has further enraged the bien-pensant classes. An online petition calling on him to put his money where his mouth is and spend a week living on that amount of money has raised more than 150,000 signatures, after being frenetically promoted by liberal tweeters and journalists.
Yet while middle-class agitators fulminate against IDS’s reforms, the working classes and poor – many of whom actually receive benefits – have failed to follow them into battle. Opinion polls suggest these sections of society accept the need for welfare reform. Indeed, far from being fans of the welfare state, many of the down-at-heel seem to hate it.
Recent polls show that 64 per cent of Brits think the benefits system “doesn’t work”; 78 per cent think that if an unemployed person turns down a job, his benefits should be cut; and 84 per cent believe there should be tougher work-capability tests for disabled people.
Discomfort with welfarism has grown among the less well-off. According to a British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, in 2003 82 per cent of people on benefits agreed that “the government should be the main provider of support to the unemployed”, but by 2011, three years into the downturn, only 62 per cent did. The proportion of working-class people who agreed with that statement fell from 81 per cent in 2003 to 67 per cent in 2011.
Agreement that “unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work” has risen steadily among the less well-off. Only 40 per cent of benefits recipients agreed with it in 2003, while in 2011 59 per cent did. Thirty-eight per cent of working-class respondents agreed in 2003 that welfarism discouraged work; 58 per cent agreed in 2011.
The lack of love for the welfare state among its supposed beneficiaries drives liberal campaigners nuts. Why, they wail, are those on the breadline so down about the glorious postwar system of welfarism, even though it has saved their ungrateful rumps from destitution?
In Monday’s Guardian, columnist John Harris, who regularly travels around Britain to find out what the little people think, bemoaned the fact that anti-welfare “noise” always gets louder “as you head into the most disadvantaged parts of society”. This echoes a recent Guardian editorial which complained that ordinary Brits have become “more Scrooge-like” towards welfare claimants.
Or behold the bamboozled Joseph Rowntree researcher Fern Brady, who was horrified to discover that the less well-off are not remotely “pro-welfare”. Earlier this year, Ms Brady interviewed 150 families who will be affected by benefits cuts and was alarmed to find that “the majority held the kind of attitudes that make the Daily Mail ’s headlines look positively Left‑wing” – that is, they were anti-welfarism, and stingingly critical of those who claim welfare, even though they themselves claim it.
Pity the poor, unthanked middle-class warrior for welfare rights! These lonely campaigners have come up with all sorts of theories to explain the poor’s failure to get off their lardy derrières and defend welfarism. Their favourite is the idea that the less well-off, being a bit dim, have been brainwashed by “scrounger”-hating tabloid newspapers.
Suzanne Moore of the Guardian says “the Right” has won ordinary people over to its welfare-cutting agenda through appealing to their emotional prejudices, and in such a climate “fact-busting has its limits”. That is, not even the Guardian’s apparently factually airtight predictions of the horrors that will unfold following IDS’s reforms are likely to wake the poor from their anti-welfare stupor.
In truth, if there really is dimwittery in this debate, it’s among the confused middle-class warriors for welfarism. They have failed, and failed miserably, to reckon with one of the iron laws of modern politics – which is that the more reliant you are on the welfare state, the more experience you have of it and the less you love it. And by extension, the further removed you are from the welfare state, the less experience you have of it, the more you can fantasise about its virtues and grow to love it. Or at least an imaginary version of it derived from watching Casualty and reading Polly Toynbee columns.
The implication in all the hand‑wringing commentary is that the less well-off should, by nature, be pro-welfare. And if they aren’t, they must be brainwashed by “the Right”. Yet Britain’s struggling communities have never been fans of welfarism, and for good reason: unlike columnists and campaigners, they’ve seen with their own eyes the devastating impact it can have on community life.
The BSA and Joseph Rowntree research that found the modern poor do not love the welfare state is entirely in keeping with historical working-class attitudes towards welfarism. From the Poor Law assistance of the 19th century, through pre-Beveridge forms of welfare in the interwar years, to the postwar welfare state itself, less well-off communities have been suspicious of external financial and therapeutic assistance.
In the early 20th century, as Pat Thane documented in a 1999 collection of essays entitled Before Beveridge, the less well-off hated new forms of welfare that seemed to entail “intrusion into working-class lives and homes, and seemed to imply that poor people needed the guidance of their 'betters.’ ”
Poor communities found claiming welfare humiliating. Pamela Graves’ 2009 study, A Blessing or a Curse? Working-Class Attitudes to State Welfare in Britain 1919-1939, found that the early 20th-century poor “expressed very little satisfaction with their new status as citizen beneficiaries of state welfare”. They hated being told by early welfare activists, whom they viewed as “middle-class strangers”, how they should spend their money and even how to raise their children.
Graves cites one Max Cohen, an unemployed cabinet-maker of the Thirties, who believed that a proud man would “allow himself to be starved to death rather than beg the means of subsistence from others”. Apparently that was a common outlook among the poor of the early and mid-20th century.
These anti-welfare attitudes continued post‑Beveridge. And they can still be seen today, in those polls finding that substantial majorities of working-class people and even benefits recipients think modern welfarism is flawed and discourages work.
It actually makes perfect sense that the less well-off are hostile to welfarism, because they know the soul-deadening and community-dividing impact it can have. They know that being sustained by the state is a miserable existence compared with being busy, independent, self-reliant. They know that NHS hospitals, especially in the poorer bits of Britain, are far from the greatest human creations since the pyramids, and rather are often soulless institutions in which their ageing relatives are treated like animals and they are still told by “middle-class strangers” how to raise their children.
They know, from one glance at that defeated uncle or brother on the sofa, that offering “incapacity” benefits to the long-term unemployed encourages these people to see themselves as sick, rather than as having been failed by society. More fundamentally, they know that workless communities propped up by ceaseless welfare-state intervention tend to become ghost towns, bereft of individual initiative and lacking in social solidarity.
After all, if an individual’s or family’s every financial and therapeutic need is met by faraway faceless bureaucrats, what need is there for them to strike up relationships within their own communities, to get together with others in the pursuit of daily happiness or a better future? Welfarism, by coaxing the poor man into the all-encompassing bosom of the state, alienates him from his neighbour.
Who could love such a system, save those cushioned sections of society lucky enough never to have been mangled by it?
So, all you well-to-do campaigners for welfarism, there is no need to be bemused by the poor’s indifference to your battle. For what you love about welfarism – that it insulates the so-called “vulnerable” from the chaotic, often unfair world of the market and struggle – is precisely what the poor hate about it. And what you hate about IDS’s cuts – that they remove the “safety net” that many experience as a trap – might just be what the poor admire in them.