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Dec. 8th, 2010

So, the government’s own advisers warned them that their housing benefit reforms would lead to social carnage but they went ahead anyway? What could be behind this? I mean, there really must be an overwhelming reason in the national interest to press on despite the risk of that kind of societal damage. Right?

The boss of a friend of mine has an arthritic condition that means she uses a wheelchair when travelling any significant distances. A few months ago she had a bewilderingly unpleasant cab journey across London during which the driver spent the whole trip exploring his theory that disability benefit was a swindle and that most if not all the people who claimed it were shirkers. This to (in case you missed it) a woman in a wheelchair with arthritis, who had done nothing to provoke him other than sit in a wheelchair and be arthritic. That taxi driver is now Under-Secretary of State for Welfare.

All right, no he isn’t, but he might as well be. “’Unable to work’? No such thing, mate”—these people put the “cabbie” in “cabinet minister”. It’s official, even if it isn’t true: all benefits are theft. Disability, housing; name it, you’ve stolen it and now the government want it back. All taxpayers are paying for scrounging families to live in luxurious accommodation far more expensive than their own, they claim grandly without ever actually producing the numbers to prove it. No-one should ever get free money, they lecture us sternly while investigating the easiest way to abolish inheritance tax.

Even occasional readers of this blog may be familiar by now with my surmise that the Tories are governing by their instincts and prejudices rather than necessarily based on any facts, often because the facts clash inconveniently with what they have already decided. I’m afraid I have to serve this reheated dish up once again: those instincts and prejudices, not the financial train wreck that the banks bestowed on us, are the first and only reason for the reforms.

Ask Howard Flight, the recently ennobled ex-MP for Arundel who was sacked in 2005. He had made a speech, when he considered that he was among trustworthy right-wing friends, that laid out how the Tories’ proposals for £35 billion in savings in welfare spending, far from being the full extent of them, represented only the start of what the party wanted to do. Their findings, he said, had been “‘sieved’ for what is politically acceptable and what is not going to lose the main argument”, but “everyone on our side of the fence believes passionately that it will be a continuing agenda”. This, remember, was in 2005, when we were doing comparatively well—there was no imminent financial catastrophe to be cited as the axe was swung. The speech was leaked to the Times, the public for some reason got the idea that the Tories were being dishonest about what they planned to do when they got back into power, and the whole incident contributed to their failure to dislodge Blair that same year. But the “continuing agenda” simmered away, and now the party has its chance.

Intriguingly, it turns out that one of the chief exponents of the exciting potential offered by benefit-slashing and poverty isn’t even in the Tory party (or the other one[1]). Thanks to Wikileaks, it turns out that Bank of England governor Mervyn King may have had a hand in creating the coalition’s deficit-reduction strategy and played a key role in ensuring that the cuts are as savage as planned. Not that Cameron and Osborne will have needed too much encouragement; the same cables reveal that King himself felt strongly that the pair of them were concerned only with the political impact of their reforms, not the economic. In other words, if for whatever reason you’re unable to work and you’re now scared of losing your home or whatever security you currently have, be under no illusion: these people really do hate you. They’re not concerned with any wider economic benefit of slashing your benefit—they just genuinely think you shouldn’t have it.

Ultimately, any arguments against are simply academic. The coalition outnumbers its opponents in Parliament and, like the previous administration before it, can drive enough of its own through the division lobbies to vote at the elected end of the building, while it can safely ignore any attempts by the unelected end to curb its legislative excesses. It doesn’t need to win the argument—it just needs to win the process. And it has very little incentive to listen to any voices of protest, even if they come from its own ranks, as it wages its total war against the straw men.

[1] That measurable Lib Dem contribution so far:
(1) Persuading the Tories not to destroy the BBC overnight but rather to delay the process (their flagship achievement)

(2) Persuading the education department to label part of its existing education spending as the “pupil premium” (not sure what the point of this was)

(3) Backing a tuition fee system that will see the less well off ultimately pay more than the rich because they won’t be able to pay their loan interest off as quickly

(4) Abandoning pretty much everything else they ever claimed to stand for on immigration, nuclear power etc etc
Have they got something really special up their sleeve? Because so far they seem to be living up to the most sarcastic expectations of their detractors.  Back


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:22 pm (UTC)
Bang on. As always. Before the election there were some warning that the Tories were bigging up the notion of severe crisis as a way to justify the mass transfer of services into the private sector, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine' model in a UK context. I didn't believe them, now, everything I've seen since the election convinces me that this is exactly what's going on. Jakarta is coming, Jakarta is coming
Dec. 8th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
Shock Doctrine, yes.

I suspect there's a trans-Atlanticist aspect to this as well; it looks to me as if the current generation of Republicans are also intent on bringing the Shock Doctrine home. Pop Disaster Capitalism will eat itself.

The question is, what happens afterwards ...?
Dec. 8th, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
good question. Let us imagine for a moment a state that sought to transfer the entire burden of taxation from rich onto poor whilst preventing any extension of the state such that the state could even start ameliorating the wretched living conditions in which the majority lived. It didn't go so well for the French aristocracy did it?
In all seriousness, this class war... Actually can we move beyond terms like class war? It's inaccurate and loaded with all sorts of less than helpful connotations. It's not so much about class, more about money and your ability to pay. And your ability to pay will be inextricably linked with you and your family's ability to extract money out of a system designed for the benefit of and run by the rich. And if you think that's simplistic just take a look at the US right now - that could well be the UK in ten years time.
Anyway, this war by the rich against the poor, the re-establishment of (wage) slavery or however you label it, engenders serious grievance. And if you have a critical mass of sufficiently aggrieved people you get a recipe for serious trouble. Quite how that would actually play out in a UK context I don't know. I suspect we'll see the power elite do what it has always traditionally done, ie relieve the pressure in the system just enough to prevent it boiling over, the 1832 Reform Act being the classic historical example.
Thing is, the influence of giant trans national corporations being what it is in this country, I'm not convinced that UK power elites would be allowed by their corporate benefactors to apply such a corrective. Instead we'd see a tightening of the screws, more and more widespread suspensions of civil liberties to protect us from lefties, darkies, moslems, peasants 'undesirables'. Pretty soon they'll come after the intellectuals. (Oh hang on they've already started, what do you think the complete abolition of teaching funding for Arts & Humanities is about?)
Granted this is a bleak view so far, but there's some rays of light. One would be the difficulties inherent in setting up an effective police state. They'd need things like a reasonably functioning ID database.... (stop laughing at the back) Also, states are really bad at even comprehending the nature of distributed opposition networks let alone effectively combating. And that's on a small scale where they're dealing with at most networks of a few thousand, imagine a scenario where they're dealing with a million disaffected citizens.
Ok, so I'm thinking out loud here, but the inevitable triumph of the trans nationals is by no means assured.
Dec. 8th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
> One would be the difficulties inherent in setting up an effective police state.

Not just the difficulties but the effort. I really don't think this is part of their agenda, not least because that kind of state über-surveillance would eat up far too much of the money that the government are intent on not spending. Now, a police state delivered by third-sector providers, on the other hand...
Dec. 8th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
> a police state delivered by third-sector providers

In fact David Blunkett and Charles Clarke are probably forming a consortium to bid for this as we speak.
Dec. 8th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC)
(facepalm) of course they'd outsource it! Damn, I should have thought of that. Actually it's happening already, just think Blackwater or whatever they call themselves these days to avoid prosecution and bad PR. I've a vague idea Chicago is experimenting with a private police force, anyone know anything about this?
And its not just in the US, private security is big business in the UK, just track where all the hooligans of Hereford end up when thy leave the Regiment. Hmmm, I winder what Control Risks, Sandline, Executive Outcomes etc are up to these days. (apart from doing all the deniable stuff that the FCO really doesn't want you to know about. Paging Wikileaks, paging Wikileaks...
Dec. 8th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
One word. Serco.
Dec. 8th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
oh, them. For some reason, I'm reminded of the character Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey, him with the unintelligible management bullshit speak. they were one of the main beneficiaries of the move to out source services from the 80s onwards. Mainly thanks to the civil servants who designed the various schemes then jumped ship to lucrative directorships or enormous fees as 'consultants.'
Dec. 8th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
a police state delivered by third-sector providers, on the other hand...

Who are the shareholders?

(The same legislators or sometime civil servants who conduct the policy studies or send out the tenders for contract, by any chance?)
Dec. 9th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
Any chance of less truth in future posts? My nose won't stop bleeding.
Dec. 13th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)
Would that there were a "like" button on LiveJournal, really.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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