Writing in the Guardian recently, Madeleine Bunting argued that bankers and benefit claimants have one thing in common: ‘their capacity to provoke popular resentment’.
Certainly, the welfare state, and the dependent status that comes with it, has long been regarded by its critics as the cause of everything that is going wrong in society. It is blamed for the breakdown of community; it is blamed for the various deprivations and depravities associated with the creation of a dependent underclass, from anti-social behaviour to child abuse. It is even blamed for the failing UK economy, for unsustainable public spending, ‘hidden’ unemployment and negative growth. Yet, for all that the welfare state finds itself falsely accused of a multitude of problems, the charge of welfare dependency is fairly levelled.
While there are only 800,000 official job seekers, more than 2.5million are claiming incapacity benefit, and hundreds of thousands more are reliant on housing benefit and income support, amongst other things. In all, there are nearly five million people out of work and claiming benefits at the moment. What is perplexing is that for all the concern about public spending levels – particularly on welfare – critics do not oppose the retention of this ‘safety net’.
Instead, the question asked of this safety net is how big it should be and how far it should be cast? It is pretty clear, for instance, that the state should be stepping in right now to address the immediate needs of those most affected by the recession. But in other areas of life, especially people’s interior lives, their emotions and feelings, state intervention is far less helpful.
Take, for example, a recent report by the Mental Health Foundation. Here it is argued that the economic downturn is having an ‘adverse effect on the nation’s wellbeing’. This shift, from focusing on people’s welfare to attending to their wellbeing, brings problems of its own. The use of this term today tends to justify a more intrusive and extensive role for the state: through its appointed experts, the state can effectively manage people’s lives for them. And in doing so it assumes that people in general lack the resources to cope with life.
On all sides of the debate there is a failure to grasp just how profound this shift has already been, and how ingrained in the wider culture the problem of dependency has become. Beyond the confines of the welfare state, the micro-politics of lifestyle and therapy, ostensibly aimed at promoting our wellbeing, are in fact making us all dependent on the intervention of third parties.
‘People can’t cope’ is the underlying assumption. Hence a ‘surge in children taken into care’ is blamed on the recession, because (we are told) it is ‘inevitable’ that as people get poorer they smack their kids, suffer breakdowns, and turn to drugs and alcohol. It is acknowledged almost as an afterthought that the headline-grabbing child abuse case of Baby P (see Fixing ‘Broken Britain’?, by David Clements) may also have had something to do with this. In a similar vein, the Audit Commission has warned that local authorities need to be prepared for the ‘surge in social problems such as addiction, alcoholism and domestic violence’ that we can expect as a consequence of the ‘second wave’ of the recession.
This concern with people’s potentially troubling behaviour, about the risks they face and about their emotional and relationship needs, is unsurprisingly having an impact on welfare policy. All the political parties claim to support ‘radical’ welfare reform and issue statements about imposing tougher conditions on the workless.
The Tories, for example, say they want to protect us from ‘stifling’ big government and to end ‘state control over the lives of individuals’. But like New Labour, they still understand the lot of benefit claimants in terms of people’s needs and personal inadequacies; that is, they lack self-esteem or self-confidence. This is rather different to the traditional Tory view that the workless are lazy, bone-idle or work-shy. There is nobody telling the jobless to get on their bikes anymore, as old Tory warhorse Norman – now Lord – Tebbit once did. The new Tories might want to go along with Tebbit, but only so long as the stabilisers are left on.
Like New Labour, the Tories will lead benefit claimants down the Pathway to Work, but never quite let go. So even after a job-seeker has succeeded in getting a job, there will be ‘sustained mentoring and development advice’ from the touchy-feely Tories. Today’s official interest in the minutiae of our lives does not look like ending with the demise of New Labour; it is set to continue under David Cameron’s Tories.
So, instead of telling people that they should get married because that’s the right thing to do, a Cameron government would offer couples ‘relationship counselling at critical moments in their lives’. As if to demonstrate he has no political convictions one way or the other, self-styled ‘Red Tory’ Phillip Blond says he doesn’t object to lone parents because they are lone parents. Rather he objects to them because their children do badly at school, or get addicted to drugs and alcohol, or go on to commit crimes when they get older. Similarly, right-wing journalist, former banker and critic of the welfare state, James Bartholomew, claims that it is the damage done to children rather than the fact that they’re born out of wedlock, that he finds so objectionable.
The belief that the welfare state is to blame for Britain’s problems draws on a profound sense of people’s inability to run their own lives. If anything, the critics of the welfare state underestimate the problem of dependency by failing to recognise just how pervasive is this view of people’s incapacity. Dependency is not about the feckless few, it runs much deeper than that.
If we are to defend welfare, we need to work out how it can be a help and not a hindrance, a boost rather than a burden. Whatever the merits of the welfare state, the postwar optimism that inspired it is long gone. It is only when we challenge the pessimism of our own age, and the notion that people are essentially vulnerable, helpless and not to be trusted, rather than robust, resourceful and autonomous, that we will regain our independence.