George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, with its backtracking on the slashing of tax credits, leaves a huge question hanging over 21st-century Britain: who has the cojones to do something about the destructive culture of welfarism? Anybody? It seems not. Both the supposedly small-state right and the apparently pro-work left have become bizarrely reluctant to address the spread of the autonomy-sapping welfare state into more people’s lives.
Look, the tax credits thing is definitely complicated. It would have been dodgy to cut them without first putting meaningful pressure on business to pay people a proper wage. It is, however, weird and wrong that the state effectively tops up people’s pay packets, so I hope we come back to this issue soon, and tackle it in a rational fashion.
But Osborne’s eye-swivelling U-turn on tax credits — described by the Times as ‘his biggest U-turn since becoming chancellor’ — is nonetheless worrying. For it speaks to a powerful stasis and cowardice in the debate, or non-debate, about welfarism. As Osborne discovered in recent weeks, via the revolt of the tyrants in the House of Lords and the relentless media slamming of his tax-credits plans, anybody who so much as suggests a rethink of the vast state scaffolding that has been erected around millions of people’s lives can expect to be shouted down.
Osborne’s ditching of his tax-credits plans might be sensible in the short term, but more broadly it speaks to, and reinforces, the alarming chilling of any serious discussion about welfarism.
A palpable culture of censoriousness surrounds this issue. Consider the unhinged reaction to Channel 4 when it first started broadcasting Benefits Street in January 2014. The leftish media went into meltdown. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition demanding C4 ‘stop broadcasting Benefits Street’. Hundreds complained about the series to Ofcom. They wanted to crush this depiction of the vagaries and difficulties of life in the welfarist trap. How despicable, to support the culture of welfarism while trying to hide from public view its impact, the damage it wreaks on individuals and communities.
But however much the the apologists for the Byzantine system of welfarism might kick and shout, we need to get the facts out there, and we need to talk about them frankly.
The fact that more than half of Britain’s households, 13.7m, receive more in welfare benefits than they pay in taxes. The fact that this represents a rise from 45.9 per cent of households in 1997 to 51.5 per cent today. The fact that 20.3m families now receive some kind of state benefit. The fact that for 9.6m of these families, benefits account for more than half of their income. The fact that nearly five million people have their rent paid by the state. The fact that vast numbers of people, first through Incapacity Benefit and then through Employment Support Allowance, have been redefined by the state as ‘incapable’ — of work, of independence, of dignity, in effect — and have been put out to pasture. There are parts of Britain where a state-sanctioned culture of incapacity has deadened community spirit, destroyed its soul.
The growth of welfarism in recent decades, the replacement of economic vision and the creation of new wealth with a colossal system of state charity and therapy, has terrible consequences. It dents individual ambition, and corrodes social solidarity. When people are invited to rely for their every financial and psychic need on the distant, faceless state, then they’re less likely to rely on their own volition and on the support and kindness of neighbours and friends.
Welfarism is a classic good intention turned hellish: in the name of helping people it actually weakens both individual pluck and community zest. Of course, the loudest cheerleaders of welfarism — the comfortable, cushioned liberals who shout down anyone who criticises the welfare state — have no experience of this. They don’t even want to see it on their TV, as their lust to censor Benefits Streets demonstrated. Yet a few miles from the leafy suburbs in which they churn out their defences of welfarism there will be communities branded incapable and made divided by that welfarism.
Some people say, ‘But welfare benefits is not a huge part of government spending!’ This is true. It accounts for somewhere over 20 per cent. Or they say, ‘And old people get most of it!’ This is also true, and I think it is quite proper: the generational jihadists who moan about pension spending don’t seem to realise that old people who have worked or child-reared all their lives deserve society’s help in their twilight years, and that this is massively different to giving state largesse to fit, young 25-year-olds.
But my concern with welfarism is not how much it costs the government but the costs it has for community life, public spirit, the self-willed individual. Welfarism should be radically rethought not in order to save a few billion quid but in order to reverse the state’s spread into communities and to repair the self-belief and independence of working-class and poorer sections of society.
Both the right and left are failing on welfarism. The right ought to oppose it in the name of shrinking state interventionism. And the left ought to oppose it for the reason that many working-class institutions did oppose it when it was first being developed in the early twentieth century: because it makes people unproductive, and rips them from the society they live in, and because we should have full employment not paternalistic handouts.
The end result of this right/left failure is acquiescence to the rise of a new feudalism: millions of middle-class people employed by the state to look after millions of poor people. It is a scandal. It is domestic imperialism. Osborne doesn’t have the balls for the job, but we must. Never mind simply trimming tax credits — we need to overturn this whole Dickensian system of the well-educated being employed to keep the poor unemployed.