In his address to the House of Commons yesterday George “Jeffrey” Osborne set out his view that the welfare (I presume he means social security) system has to be fair to two sets of people, those who benefit from it and those who pay for it. This was another version of the strivers v skivers dichotomy the government like so much. The sight of Iain Duncan Smith sitting there grinning as another assault was launched on the most disadvantaged members of society was enough to have any decent person reaching for the sick bag.
The dichotomy is, of course, entirely false. Some 30 years ago the New Statesman carried an article entitled ‘Why the Unemployed Don’t Rebel’ This was, for the benefit of younger readers, a time of unemployment reaching 3 million when some commentators were predicting major social unrest. It didn’t happen and this excellent piece explained why it wouldn’t.
Firstly, of course, unemployment is an isolating and demoralising experience that saps an individual’s will to fight. Secondly, and most relevant to this post, is that the unemployed are not a static pool of people. The article had the brilliant analogy of a funnel. The newly redundant are poured in at the top and flow down emerging at the bottom when they find a new job as the overwhelming majority eventually do, nearly all of them within twelve months. When unemployment is falling the funnel is narrow at the top and wide at the bottom., the other way round when it is rising.
What does this mean? Simply this, that nearly all the current recipients of Job Seekers Allowance have paid income tax and National Insurance in the past and will do so in the future. Many of those currently paying tax and NI have claimed benefits in the past and many will do so in the future. The social security system is, as intended by Beveridge, a system of social insurance. There are not separate groups of givers and takers. We all pay for social security and are all entitled to assistance if we lose our jobs or become unable to work. Clearly we would rather not have to just as we would prefer not to claim on our motor insurance policies. I don’t resent my neighbour because he has had his car stolen and had to claim on his insurance. Why would I resent him for losing his job and having to claim on the country’s social insurance? Social insurance is different from motor insurance in one important respect. It is part of a social contract that binds us all together in reciprocal rights ad obligations. It is, on the face of it, strange that Conservative politicians who claim to believe in the big society are so keen to erode what social cement we still have. In 2010 few of us appreciated just what a deeply unpleasant government this would be.
What would Lord Beveridge have made of it? What would he, a Liberal, have made of the passive acceptance by the Liberal Democrats of this nasty, cynical and divisive rhetoric? .