The infamous programme ‘Benefits Street’ does not show Britain at its worst, it shows Channel 4 doing what it does best: looking for a microcosm of society to blow out of proportion and make people angrier than they should be. How coincidental (or, rather, despicable) was it that the day after this programme served to enrage people about the state of our welfare system, Chancellor George Osborne took the opportunity to announce a further £25bn in budget cuts? He’s not concerned about the very poor, and neither is his party. But, of course, why should they be? After all, they’re all money grabbing scroungers, aren’t they? Well, they must be, because Channel 4 said so, and TV would never lie, right?
Beveridge, during the Second World War, invented the modern welfare state and designed it to be a system of hand-ups, not hand-outs. He felt that the government owed it to its people – its electors and constituents – to look after them “from cradle to grave”, because, as Abraham Lincoln too once postulated, Government should do for the people what they cannot do for themselves. So, eviscerating the social safety nets which are widely credited with leading the charge to tackle poverty in Britain is not an economic policy; it is an outrage. Austerity does not just punish the poorest among us for the mistakes of the establishment; it punishes them for the crimes of the establishment.
Economic elitism has to end in this country, and so too must the snobbery around the welfare state because, at the end of the day, it exists to pick any one of us up, should we fall. If the Prime Minister himself were to lose everything tomorrow, he would be in safe hands – well, he would, had he not fiercely rapped those hands with the belt of his economic agenda. If solving poverty were as simple as the phrase, “get a job,” then poverty would surely not exist. Despite what anybody of a more conservative leaning might say, that is not advice and that is not helpful; that is ill-thought and condescending. Oddly enough, people want to work. To the overwhelming majority, idleness is not ideal. They don’t want to get left languishing at the bottom, but many – too many – have been able to give up hope. With an economic model which is riddled with routine recessions, people are subjected to the risk of periodic unemployment. People do nothing but follow the routes laid out before them and obey the rules demanded of them, yet still they are saddled with the bulk of the burden.
It is almost laughable whenever the Prime Minister or any other member of his Cabinet try to insist, “We’re all in this together.” It seems to be that this neat little lie was concocted purely to avoid the spectre of perpetual revolution in our streets. How can we all be in this together when the sacrifices are being imposed disproportionately? Surely it is unconscionable that the wealthiest 1% enjoy a tax cut while elderly people are facing cuts or delays to their pensions, while children are seeing the prospects of their future slip rapidly away, and while ordinary adults are struggling to make ends meet? But no, instead, we have David Cameron and Mark Carney lamenting how terrible it would be for those poor bankers to get bonuses which are only worth a measly 100% of their usual salaries. How cruel fate has been to them.
What do ordinary people see when they look upon our capital city? Do they see a magnificent place of productivity and constructive debate? No. They see a den of iniquity; a place where grand aspirations go only to die miserably. People send representatives to London (and to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast) with their hopes and wish them their best, willing those representatives to make things better, for once, for them. But time and time again, our political establishment ignores those pleas and pushes people out into the cold, making them feel like burdensome outsiders inside their own country.
But the silent majority of this country is becoming increasingly vocal. And our elites don’t like the sound of it.
Why does that tiresome mantra to “make work pay” have to involve making benefits even more meagre? Why not allow welfare to continue to exist at a reasonable level while providing the popular idea of a living wage for all those who are lucky enough to work? Why do we need a draconian bedroom tax when it’s not the fault of ordinary tenants that the Tory government decimated the social housing stock in the 1980s by selling them off in search of a short term cash-flow? Why did we need to bail out the Royal Bank of Scotland when the only institution which is too big to fail in this country is the United Kingdom itself? Why should children born today be forced to endure sharply restricted opportunities because of a financial crisis which ruined the world before they even come into it? And, above all, why should people face sanctions when they are unable to work, when the people who put them in that position – the marionette masters of this grand puppet show called the economy – have faced no sanctions themselves?
There are people in Britain huddled in the cold, because they are unable to keep the heating on. There are people in Britain with not enough to eat because supplies at the food bank are running low. There are people in Britain who lost everything when they lost their job – not just their income or their standard of living, but also their pride and their dignity. There are people in Britain who send their children to school, worrying all the while that their education is a futile exercise in pursuit of a future which just isn’t there anymore. There are people in Britain having to move back in with their parents because they cannot afford the last great rite of passage: to live independently. And there are people in Britain who have more money than they can spend, and they’ll be damned if even a penny more of it gets shared out fairly among those they shamelessly trample all over.
And we’re all in this together? Oh, please.
By Marc Winsland