Nevertheless, just as Nazism provided an institutionalised outlet for the sadist, Stalinist totalitarianism on the whole automatically encouraged the mean and malicious. The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased.
– Robert Conquest, The Great Terror
The British Social Attitudes survey came out last week and it is hard reading for the left. Based on an annual sample of around three thousand people, the survey found that half this sample believe unemployment benefits are too high, in fact so high that they disincentivise people from working; support for redistribution and investment has gone through the floor. Penny Young, head of the National Centre for Social Research (which conducted the survey) commented: ‘In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year’s report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?’
I think by now Young’s question answers itself. There’s nothing wrong with selfishness. As Dickens said, you cannot fret over Africa while your child falls into the fire. You look after number one and those you love, that’s it, it’s natural, that’s what you do.
But you can’t have a worldview based on selfishness and nothing more. And there is something creepy about this visceral obsession with expenditure that doesn’t directly benefit you and yours – asylum support, foreign aid, foreign interventions. In particular, we are reaching the point where anyone on benefits is assumed to be a fraud. The proposal for cancer patients to undergo DWP assessments, mid-chemo, shocked many but is the logical consequence of the ideology of welfare reform with its first presumption of criminality.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Ian Birrell is not your typical CiF hand-wringer. He is a former speechwriter to David Cameron. But he is worried about the relentless policy and media focus on benefit fraud and the impact this is having on people who are on benefits because they physically cannot work. Police forces across the country reported increases in disability hate crime.
It is not just the vicious attacks capturing headlines that dislocate lives. Take David Gillon, a software engineer who helped build Eurofighter jets before losing his job three years ago. He walks with crutches and has been physically attacked and regularly shouted at in the street since he slipped and injured his back two decades ago.
Earlier this year, someone reported him to the government’s benefit fraud hotline. Officials dismissed the allegation as soon as they walked in his front door, but his condition, which is stress-related, worsened for several months. Now he feels so threatened he barely leaves his house. ‘If I go out, I know I could suffer more abuse,’ he said. One cruel act – and another person left a virtual prisoner in their own home.
People with disabilities are facing attacks and abuse because they are assumed to be DLA frauds. Or perhaps the a priori assumption of fraud gives the bullies the excuse they need to break this particular taboo against hurting those who can’t hit back.
Many of these attacks – and this is something the left hasn’t yet had the nerve to face – will come from working class people and people who are on benefits themselves. Writer and activist Owen Jones acknowledges that social contempt appeals to ‘benefit recipients who – belonging to a demonised group – are keen to distance themselves from ‘scroungers’.’ Certainly that’s part of it. But not all.
A character in a James Hawes novel, suffering a bad setback, reflects: ‘This is nothing so grand as despair’. There’s little grandeur in the lives of the poor, England 2011: what there is is overcrowded housing, work barely worthy of the name and endless, day-to-day, grinding immisiration. It makes you feel sorry for yourself – and self pity is among the most dehumanising of human emotions. Self pity leaves little room for imagination, empathy, perspective and other things that you need for a rounded and humane view on the world. No one has it worse than me. That guy is on ESA for a brain haemmorhage. So he says. But he might be lying. And that money could be going to me. Hit him anyway.
Crimestoppers has just launched a DWP partnership campaign against benefit fraud, and urges members of the public to report through an 0800 number. Its press release is heavy on emotion and viewpoint: ‘The public feels very strongly’… ‘third most worried about…’ ‘in response to public concern…’ It tells us that the average estimate of money lost to benefit fraud is four times the actual number. It quotes a survey finding:
When asked how much they think fraud costs the public sector each year, in things like benefit fraud and tax avoidance a little over a third (35%) of respondents said that fraud costs the public sector £9 billion per year.
Some might say we would be better off adding up the actual (not the estimated) amount lost by corporate tax evasion, as compared to the actual – again, not the guessed amount, but the real amount – lost by petty benefit fraud, and acting accordingly. But then, this is government by perception, not government by reality.
On one level this is a great idea. A crime is a crime, and a theft is a theft. Yet how effective are these sorts of campaigns? There already is a benefit fraud hotline. The DWP pays £1.6m for this service, from public money. HoC figures show that, of the tens of thousands of calls, only a small percentage result in an investigation that leads to a sanction. It’s hard to avoid the impression blogger Declan Gaffney gets: that ‘96% of calls to the National Benefit Fraud Hotline are malicious or timewasting.’
This is England, in the twenty-first century: a nation of censorious tattletales.
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