Let’s Spread A Little Sanity Together

Political blogger Declan Gaffney looks back on a week of crazy welfare coverage and concludes that it’s time for sensible people to get out of the game.

This week’s outbreak of irrationality over welfare has brought home to me just how far political debate on this issue in the UK has broken loose from any mooring in reality. It’s obvious that what people refer to as ‘welfare’ has little to do with the realities of expenditure levels, eligibility conditions, employment impacts, deduction rates or any of the other things that those of us whose job involves trying to understand social security systems worry about. Very little that has been said over the last week has really been about welfare in this sense. Rather, ‘welfare’ in the UK political imagination is a prism through which issues of class, social cohesion and purported national decline are refracted, magnified and distorted with little reference to the functions of social security or how well it fulfills them. When a former speech-writer to Tony Blair can reduce the entire debate, without any significant loss of nuance, to the headline ‘Labour can’t win if it’s on Mick Philpott’s side’ (£) it’s time for people like me to bow out and get back to our day jobs.

After the events of the last few days these are my feelings too.

It just seems that these days, if you’re not obsessed with welfare and immigration, if you don’t have an irrational consuming envy of benefit claimants and poverty-line refugees, then there’s no place for you in mainstream politics.

True, survey after survey shows a majority of people want a hard line on benefit claimants and immigrants. But there is a disconnect between what people want and what actually works. Conducting interviews with Tory backbenchers, Matthew Parris found that ‘Almost all my respondents said that on the doorstep they met fairly unconditional hostility to immigration. But they were worried about the practical difficulties in limiting numbers — and very chary indeed about bold promises.’ Most of the time, this disconnect isn’t even acknowledged.

This is not the space to discuss the rights and wrongs of welfare reform. I’ve had my say on that, at great length. Basically, I think welfare dependency is a problem, but what’s being proposed ain’t necessarily the solution. What’s not in dispute is that if you actually look at the stats you will find that what much of the public believe and what politicians base their policies on is from a position of unreality. These facts are publicly available, cited again and again by more reasonable commenters but this doesn’t change the narrative of the debate. We are not dealing here with rational demands. It’s not rational for people and politicians to be so fixated on a relatively small percentage of domestic expenditure.

Talk like this to any Labour hack or professional activist and you will be accused of being a snob, a naif, a liberal elitist – etcetera. We need to engage with concerns, they will say. Damn lot of good that has done. Twenty years of ‘engagement’ hasn’t reduced the demand for more hang-flog-deport policies, quite the reverse. And it alienates people with more moderate and reflective views, who are put off by the hysterical bitterness of welfare discourse. There are more of us than you think, in fact most people are fairly smart and tolerant, but the country is still somehow run for the benefit of parochial shriekers with a chip on the shoulder the size of Britain’s national debt.

Don’t think this is yet another rant about the coalition and the Tory press. Pro-welfare activists can proved they can be just as silly, and their aggressive self pity helps no one. An example from this week: the furore that erupted when George Osborne parked his car in a disabled space – well, he didn’t really, but as Libby T writes, that’s not the point:

Regardless of your political affiliation, and regardless of what you think of George Osborne’s policies, he is The Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is to say, after the Queen and the Prime Minister, one of the United Kingdom’s most senior public figures. American politics has its share of buffoonery, but I can’t imagine the US press getting excited because a Secret Service chauffeur stopped briefly in a disabled parking bay to pick up Hillary Clinton. In fact, I can’t imagine another country where police vehicle stopping for a few second in a disabled bay – especially when others were available – to pick up a very senior government official would be cause for commentary, let alone press coverage.

To repeat, the only effect of all this is to deter moderate and reasonable people from getting involved in mainstream politics. The political class have made it clear that they don’t want us there. They’ve been very candid about that. The field is going to be dominated by career activists, professional ideologues, busybodies, power freaks and other political swine. British politics is not a place for grown ups.

I remember John Irving being asked, at the height of the Bush years, why there was so little about politics in his novels. Irving responded that politics had become ‘too silly to write about’. At the time, I didn’t see where he was coming from. Now I do.


(Image via Tom Pride)

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