David Cameron, the prime minister, urged us all today to return to first principles and think about what the welfare state should be. For many people the welfare state should provide the mechanism by which the state seeks universal and wider social justice. On the other hand, for many it should be a medium through which the state endeavours to promote individual morals.
Mr Cameron’s outline for a national debate resembles a paradigm shift in his thinking and tactics within the coalition and is his way of cranking up the pressure for the General Election that must take place by May 2015. He imagines a welfare system fine-tuned by ministers in Whitehall, who make policies that will encourage people towards the Conservative ideals of hard work, saving, marriage and, when you can be financially responsible for them, having children. To the seasoned bystander this looks remarkably like John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign that backfired on him so badly. For example, Cameron seems to be creating a myth that all housing benefit goes to the unemployed when in reality nothing could be further from the truth according to George Eaton, writing for the New Statesman: “The truth is that just one in eight claimants is out of work (not a statistic that you’ll find reported in most papers). The majority of those who claim housing benefit, including the under-25s, do so to compensate for substandard wages and extortionate rents” Extortionate private-sector rents is one of the subjects much discussed before here, where greedy landlords are abetted by the government, creating a bloated and profitable alternative to social housing, that has shrunk year-on-year since 1980. Blair was no friend to the poor.
The prime minister is asserting that there is now a divisive gap in Britain between those who are sheltered from economic reality inside the welfare system and those resentfully paying for it and struggling whilst working. This is just not a argument that is grounded in reality. Of course there are problem families, including those who are long term unemployed, but imperilling the stability of young people who work hardly seems fair. It undoubtedly sounds the death-knell for Cameron’s unpopular flirtation with compassionate conservatism, so despised by the selfish right-wing of his party; more like it will hasten his own death knell at the hands of the electorate. By way of strengthening his argument, Mr. Cameron describes what he feels is a divided society, of a welfare gap between “those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it.” The prime minister’s attempts to reason that state benefits are not so much about need but are, to a far greater extent, about what he considers to be social responsibility. From his speech today it is clear that he seeks to end what he perceives as a culture of entitlement and focus on those “who have no other means of support, or who have fallen on hard times”.
His argument plays only to the rabid right of the nasty party, who else may well abandon the Conservatives at the next election and vote UKIP.