George Osborne’s shaming of the poor shows how little the Tories understand citizenship, writes Joyce McMillan
Were the Conservatives ever any good with the concept of citizenship? It’s hard to say; but I seem to recall that there was a time when the party took an interest in the work of political philosophers like Edmund Burke, serious thinkers about the right relationship between citizen and society. And even when I was a child, in the you’ve-never-had-it-so-good days of Harold Macmillan’s premiership, Tories generally seemed to agree that modern citizenship involved an element of equality before the law, an element of democratic franchise and participation, and an element of social security, provided through national insurance by a state which had sworn “never again” to tolerate the horrifying levels of poverty and inequality seen during the 1930s.
Yet to judge by some of the proceedings at this week’s Tory conference in Manchester, the party of Burke, Rab Butler and Iain Macleod is now happy to have its theory of cititizenship drafted for it by the headline-writers of some of Britain’s most right-wing newspapers; and what it boils down to is that you may enjoy the rights and dignity of a citizen if they, the Tories, like the look of you – if they think you’re clean, decent, law-abiding, hard-working and compliant enough – but that if they take exception to you for any reason, or conclude that you do not belong to that group, then you can forget all thought of dignity, equality, or even a decent measure of personal privacy.
For months and years, of course, since British politics took its sharp 1980s swerve to the Right, there have been straws in the wind suggesting a slow decay in the idea of people as full citizens, rather than consumers and occasional voters. Our right to organise and express ourselves politically is threatened not only by the oppressive provisions of the coming Lobbying Bill, but by the growing tendency to use anti-terror legislation and “containment strategies” against any group which publicly dissents from the status quo. And this week in Manchester, the Conservatives once again made a depressing show of their knee-jerk hostility to, and vacuous threats to withdraw from, the European Convention on Human Rights, a document principally drafted, at the end of the Second World War, by British lawyers who were seeking to codify into international law, for all the people of Europe, the basic rights and liberties traditionally enjoyed by British citizens.
If the Tories no longer seem like convincing guardians of the idea of citizenship when it comes to basic civil rights, though, then this week furnished some alarming evidence that they have lost the plot altogether, when it comes to the role of the state in providing for citizens who have fallen on hard times.
There are, after all, three things worth recalling about British unemployment and disability benefits, before we go any further into this argument. The first is that these benefits are typically very low; the current Jobseeker’s Allowance, for example, the main unemployment benefit, is set at just under £72 a week, among the lowest unemployment benefits in the developed world. The second is that these benefits, in all their forms, do not represent the main social security costs to the British taxpayer. Old age pensions and in-work benefits, taken together, are worth more than three times as much, and cuts in out-of-work benefits will therefore make relatively little difference to overall public spending, despite the suffering they cause.
And finally, these benefits are meant to be a form of national insurance, paid for in prosperous times, drawn upon in bad times; they are an entitlement paid for by citizens as citizens, not some form of largesse granted by the government to the shiftless and unfortunate. Yet in measure after measure – from the shocking intrusions on privacy implicit in the largely unworkable Bedroom Tax, to this week’s rabble-rousing conference announcements about forcing the unemployed to sign on every day and withdrawing benefits from the under-25’s – this government of wealthy trust-fund beneficiaries makes clear its assumption that in the neo-Dickensian world of Gradgrinds and Bumbles they inhabit, no-one except the rich is entitled to anything. The rest of us, if we fall into difficulty – and no matter how conscientiously we, unlike some, have paid our tax and national insurance – are entited only to be bullied, disrespected, and intrusively questioned by a bunch of officials trained and incentivised to behave in this way to people who, having lost their livelihood, are already undergoing one of the most painful experiences of their lives.
The Government will argue, of course, that its policy of bullying and shaming the unemployed back into work is a matter of “tough love”; that too many people and communities have fallen into a habit of indolence, and are “choosing” unemployment as a way of life. But as a devastating study by the Rowntree Foundation demonstrated as recently as last December, this is simply another lie, unsupported by the facts on the ground, where people, even in long-term unemployed households, are typically going to exceptional lengths to seek work; a lie designed to justify a world-view that is both riddled with paternalistic snobbery, and utterly out of touch with the ethos of equal dignity, and mutal respect among citizens, on which any good civil society must found itself.
For in his speech on Monday, George Osborne finally made it absolutely clear that he is not a Chancellor who speaks for Britain; he is a Chancellor who speaks only for those in Britain who are fortunate enough to be as rich as he is, or subservient enough to go along with his politics of profound inequality, of instinctive deference to the strong, and of casual cruelty to the weak. And for the rest of us, if we fall on hard times, we must take our chances: either accept our pittance from young Mr George’s basket with a good grace, and on whatever terms he dictates; or protest, raise our voices, try to assert our dignity and our equal human worth – and wait to be stripped of our benefits when we most need them, exiled into extreme poverty, and kicked when we are down, not once, but over and over again.