News that the government is considering a proposal to reward those who inform on benefit cheats is evidence of the recession being used to justify the passing of regressive legislation, designed to punish the symptoms of inequality instead of address the cause – namely the elevation of greed to the status of virtue and the continued denial of the corrosive impact this has had and continues to have on society.
It was in 1987 that Thatcher made her now infamous statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’. However, in order to truly grasp the enormity of this sentiment, and how it has shaped British society since under both the Tory government of John Major and 13 years of New Labour thereafter, it is important to look at the entire passage in which the quote was contained. Given during an interview to Woman’s Own magazine, the then prime minister said:
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
It was an ethos of individualism and Social Darwinism crafted to suit the free market model of unfettered capitalism, and there’s no doubt that Thatcher only felt secure enough to articulate such a brutal philosophy in the aftermath of a protracted war with the unions in which she and the class interests she represented emerged victorious.
Thatcher was deposed by her own in 1990 when it became obvious that her direct and overt approach to the working class was much too crude to guarantee the stability which capitalism requires in order to function optimally. The Tories inexplicably managed to win the election in 1994 with John Major at the helm, but by 1997 Major’s government was riven with splits and internecine feuds, thus setting the stage for a fresh start for capital with Tony Blair and New Labour.
The change represented by New Labour was merely a change in form and not in content. Free Market capitalism remained the only game in town as far as Blair and his cabinet of converted socialists and progressives were concerned. Adopting the ideology of Third Way triangulation to provide intellectual foundation, or, to be more accurate, smokescreen, to the continuation of the transfer of wealth from rich to poor begun under Thatcher, the result after ten years in office was a level of inequality in Britain that hadn’t been seen since the end of the 19th century.
Equality of opportunity rather than material equality marked a simple change of formulation on paper, but in the context of the guiding principle of Labourism since the Labour Party was formed in 1900, it was tantamount to Labour abandoning the working class and the poor in favour of the rich. For what is a belief in meritocracy under capitalism if not advocacy of the deserving rich at one end of the spectrum and the undeserving poor at the other?
Under the rubric of a social democracy which had lurched to the right in order to adapt to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the consequent advance of neoliberalism and finance capital around the globe, deregulation became a religion, packaged under social democracy as progressive reform, none more so in this country as the introduction of PFI and PPP.
Real wages continued to decline and be replaced by access to consumer credit for most working people, while for those who fell through the net and found themselves facing an existence of long hours on low wages, the benefits system came to be regarded as anathema by a government in thrall to the needs of employers for a low wage, casualised workforce.
Bit by bit, piece by piece, social attitudes to the benefits system have been conditioned through the passage of successive welfare reforms. Aided by the mainstream press the prevailing attitude now is that benefits for those out of work are no longer a right but a privilege, with moral degeneracy inferred as the common denominator of those in receipt.
The Welfare Reform Act, introduced by the government in 1999, was heralded as an end to the culture of dependency. Nothing of course was mentioned of the billions in handouts to the rich and big business in the form of subsidises, R & D grants, tax efficient investment schemes, capital gains, and export credit guarantees. The focus instead was on the poor and low wages - the undeserving poor. All benefit claimants under the new legislation were required to attend work-focused interviews, which in truth were designed to foment a culture of coercion in which claimants were pushed in many cases to the point of nervous breakdown to take any employment available, low wage or otherwise, regardless of previous experience, individual needs or long term prospects.
The second Welfare Reform Act under New Labour was passed in 2007. Its stated aim was a radical reduction in levels of worklessness among single parents, older people and those on Incapacity Benefit, with a target set of an 80 per cent employment rate among working age adults. The then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions responsible for pushing the new legislation through parliament was John Hutton, an ultra-Blairite moderniser, who as a student at Oxford was a member of the Conservative Association before later joining the Labour Party. What Hutton, his successor Hain, and later James Purnell, all had in common was an attachment to the coercive measures on welfare encompassed in the report compiled by investment banker Sir David Freud in 2007. Interestingly, this former adviser to the government on welfare reform later resigned to take up a position as a Conservative frontbench spokesman. Freud’s review outlined a far greater role for the private and voluntary sectors in ‘helping claimants back to work’ than previously envisaged, along with greater emphasis on benefits coming attached with responsibilities rather than being granted as a right.
The most radical measures on welfare reform thus far were mooted by James Purnell, who held the office of Work and Pensions Secretary from 2008 to 2009 before resigning in an attempt to bring down Gordon Brown’s leadership in the wake of the expenses scandal. Outlining plans for a new Welfare Reform Bill in 2008, Purnell advocated paying private firms to get people into work and a scheme in which those who were unemployed for a year would be required to do four weeks full time voluntary work of some sort in order on pain of having their benefits cut. Meanwhile, people in receipt of Incapacity Benefit would be expected to attend job interviews. The Conservatives have already announced that they will support the proposed reforms, which are expected to come before parliament sometime in late 2010-early 2011.
Overall, this structural shift in attitude towards welfare under New Labour can only be seen as a continuation of Thatcher’s assault on the poor. It has been combined with a concerted propaganda campaign in the media targeting benefit cheats, which effectively stigmatises all who claim benefits, regardless of personal circumstances.
Of course, where possible meaningful employment is always a better option than benefits. And those who make fraudulent claims are guilty of stealing from the taxpayer. But in light of the individualistic, greed-is-good ethos which has dominated society ever since Thatcher came to power, and where the pursuit of inordinate wealth and luxury has become inextricably associated with human happiness, so-called benefit cheats constitute a drop in the ocean compared to the damage done to the economy and social cohesion by the rich and a government which governs on their behalf.
For progressives the focus must be on tackling the issue of poverty at the root, which means in the midst of a recession pushing for significant investment in the real economy to create employment that comes with a living wage. After all, the money to pay for such investment is readily available.