Of sacred cows and wise turkeys

David Cameron and Nick Clegg certainly aren’t the first to forget the lessons of history, but in the unravelling of their plans is laughably predictable.

Ronald Reagan

Ben Dupré is an author and editor; his latest book is ‘50 Political Ideas You Really Need to Know

If it weren’t so serious, the current floundering of the coalition over welfare and NHS reform would be quite touching. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and company certainly aren’t the first to forget the lessons of history, but in retrospect the unravelling of their plots and plans is all so laughably predictable.

The kind of concerns that prompt legislators to implement welfare measures have existed as long as humans have had consciences. And what’s more, such concerns have never been anything but politically divisive.

Welfare provision is divisive because it is, and always has been, extraordinarily expensive to implement. It demands investment in a huge infrastructure and in a broad array of benefits, from unemployment and sickness pay to subsidised housing and free healthcare. The problem isn’t just the money though.

Setting up such a system says so much about the society that sets it up. It requires that the better-off give up some of their wealth to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. Consent to taxation and redistribution of wealth on such a scale betokens a certain kind of social consciousness. Almost inevitably, some degree of social inclusivity, some sense of common purpose, even of national identity, is fostered by such provision.

But there’s an awful lot of ideological baggage wrapped up in this, and some feel a lot more comfortable with it than others.

Prophet of modern conservatism Edmund Burke was agonising over the issue of welfare provision in the final decades of the 18th century – and for very modern-sounding reasons.

Fretting over the dangers of breeding dependency in those receiving benefits and thus creating a social underclass, Burke wrote to prime minister William Pitt the younger in 1795, warning him of the consequences of attempting “to feed the people out of the hands of the magistrates”. For, as he explains:

“Having looked to government for bread, on the very first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them. To avoid that evil, government will redouble the causes of it; and then it will become inveterate and incurable.”

It is safe to say that plenty of redoubling has taken place; that there is now a marked scarcity of bread; and that the people show every sign of wishing to bite the government’s hand. But the boffins at Tory HQ didn’t have to go back to the 18th century to get a heads-up on all this.

Most of the political history of the 20th century, in Europe and North America, was played out against a background of ideological angst over welfare and what it stood for. Until the 1970s, the consensus in the West (though hardly universal) was that decent welfare provision was the mark of a properly constituted civil society.

It was in this spirit that the first modern welfare states, intended to protect citizens at every stage of life ‘from cradle to grave’, were set up at the instigation of socialist or social democratic governments in Sweden, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In the US, meanwhile, welfare principles were no less visibly enshrined in programmes such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal.

The consensus, such as it was, was shattered in the 1970s – for reasons that should come as no surprise to George Osborne. Most significantly, the 1973 oil shock cut off the supply of cheap energy, bringing postwar growth and prosperity to a juddering halt. Rising unemployment then combined with budget deficits in high-spending socialist-governed countries to bring about severe recession.

All the familiar problems, such as ageing populations and the availability of new and expensive treatments, were already in place. Suddenly it was necessary to make choices and to set priorities.

Political change inevitably followed economic crisis, and the neo-liberal New Right – Ronald Reagan in the US, Margaret Thatcher in the UK – came to power. Political discourse became polarised, as free-marketeers decried the culture of dependency that had supposedly grown up under socialist regimes and demanded that central government cut back expenditure in key areas such as health and social security.

Before long Benjamin Disraeli’s creed that the only duty of power is “to secure the social welfare of the people” had been replaced by Reagan’s stark message:

“Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.”

Yet, in spite of the rhetoric, the rolling-back of the state – and the welfare state with it – was never more than partial. There was ostentatious belt-tightening amid a general show of toughness, but there was never an appetite for all-out revolution. Only the most rabid right-wingers (most of them called Norman) refused to acknowledge, somewhere deep down in the place where their heart should have been, that they couldn’t leave everything to the mercy of markets.

Since the 1980s the social and economic pressures on welfare services have only got worse. Globalising forces have created a culture of highly mobile – and highly fickle – capital investment which has eroded nation states’ control over their own economic destiny. High welfare costs are now seen as a luxury that threatens to undermine a country’s global competitiveness.

Yet within democracies cutting or abolishing social-service programmes remains electorally unpalatable. Even if voters are opposed in principle to high taxation and public spending, they are reluctant to vote against services from which they themselves benefit. Although the fact appears to have been lost on the coalition, a culture of sacred cows and wised-up turkeys is now immovably entrenched. As P.J. O’Rourke said of social security, welfare is:

“A government program with a constituency made up of the old, the near old and those who hope or fear to grow old … We have finally discovered a special interest that includes 100 per cent of the population. Now we can vote ourselves rich.”

So long as democracy survives and turkeys refuse to vote for Christmas, welfare provision is certain to remain a cause of severe dyspepsia for elected governments with a taste for reform.

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