The Labour party doesn’t hate the welfare state like the nasty Tory party. No, no. The Labour party just hates what the welfare state has become. If only it hadn’t strayed from the first principles of the 1942 Beveridge report, we’d be free from the dread perils of “scroungers” and “benefit dependency”, which the Labour party would like you to know it hates very much indeed – hates more, in fact, than the Tories ever could.
That’s the content of a strategic leak to the Mail, trailing a speech later this month. The subtext, of course, is a rank desperation to be seen as “tough”. “Please take us seriously as a party of government,” it wheedles. “We’ll just govern the shit out of the people you don’t like.” And who do we not like? The workshy. The idle. The people who take without putting in. This isn’t about fighting the five giants, it’s about turning a nation against itself.
Labour’s collection of enemies is a convenient one, because no one would ever self-identify with it – whoever you are and whatever your reliance on government services, Labour only wants to punish other people. These others have somehow perverted the welfare state from its original function and exploit it at the expense of decent and hardworking folks: “The benefits system has expanded in a way that Beveridge would never have foreseen,” an anonymous aide tells the Mail. “He would be turning in his grave if he knew we spend £20 billion a year on housing benefits.” (There’s no mention of whether Beveridge’s imagined shock is before or after that figure has been adjusted for 70 years of inflation, or how that might affect the ratio of spins per quid.)
The idea of limiting the welfare state to what seemed possible or politic the best part of a century ago is a similar sort of inanity to that practised by American constitutionalists, who want government limited to the strictest interpretation of the founding fathers. It’s not even automatically obvious what the welfare state includes, as Nicolas Timmins found when writing The Five Giants: A Biography Of The Welfare State. “The phrase… suffers the drawback of being static, as though ‘the welfare state’ were a perfect work, handed down in tablets of stone in 1945, never to be tampered with,” Timmins writes. “As an entity it does not exist – it is a collection of services and policies and ideas whose boundaries expand and contract over time. It can never, at any one moment, be said to have been assembled or dismantled.” (The Five Giants, p. 7.)
All three of the UK’s main political parities have locked themselves into a contest to offer the narrowest (and cheapest) possible conception of the welfare state: if Labour are promising to take us back to 1942, how long before the Tories volunteer to take us further? And if they succeed, perhaps we will after all be able to point to the moment the disparate marvel of the welfare state was finally dismantled.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; cartoon © Mirror Syndication International, reproduced for commentary