Thursday, 19 August 2010

Same old Same old...

On the Spectator blog, Peter Hoskins has a short piece on what he sees as the key dividing line in this Parliament.

Put briefly, he sees the attack on universal benefits by the coalition as a defining issue betwen the ConDems and Labour. The difference is in how the parties see a....
"....distinction between a "residual welfare state that is just for the poor, which is the Tory position," and a "more inclusive welfare state" that encompasses the middle classes. ..... the former goes against "all the evidence of maintaining public support [for the welfare state]"
The benefits in question are Child Benefit, State Pensions, the Winter Fuel Allowance and other benefits which are paid to everyone without any means testing. 

Hoskins seems to think that this is something new and distinct, and that the battle over these benefits is a 21st century ideological divide. But we have been here before. In a sense the political war over state benefits which raged throughout the 20th century, culminating in the battle of Thatcherism and the desired "size of the state" was fought on this very ground. The idea that public services should be privatised and that the rich could pay for better services than the rest of us is an extension of the argument over whether benefits are paid universally by the state, or indeed paid at all.

The Tories have always been emotionally attached to the workshop: it's cheap, it keeps the poor out of sight so that "decent" middle class folk aren't troubled by their presence, while preventing actual starvation (which might cause a conscience twinge or two). Out of sight out of mind and not too costly, ta very much is the policy. "Undeserving poor" is the sentiment.

Labour prefers a measure of universality because that's what brings us all together. If all benefits are paid to a smaller and smaller section of society which is defined as "the poor", then some of the glue that holds us together is lost. We become even more fragmented and differentiated between "them", the undeserving poor, and "us", who pay for their undeserving lives. Charles Dickens would recognise the landscape.

So Hoskins is wrong. It's not a new dividing line, it's the same old dividing line between those who think that social cohesion is something that governments should pursue and encourage and those who think, in the words of Thatcher herself that " ...there is no such thing as society...". 

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