Robin McAlpine: Welfare state of mind

Churchill gets the credit for saying 'from the cradle to the grave' for the first time in a radio broadcast in 1943. Picture: Getty

Churchill gets the credit for saying 'from the cradle to the grave' for the first time in a radio broadcast in 1943. Picture: Getty

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Political leaders and their parties have to be told to stop parroting what the plutocrats want them to say and start doing what the people who elected them told them to, writes Robin McAlpine

A few years ago an opinion poll investigated the most popular political phrases of the 20th century. The winner by far? “From the cradle to the grave.” It was immediately identified by those of the post-war generation as a story of hope captured in six words. But – most interestingly – it drew no lesser degree of support from a young generation which had never been exposed to it before.

It is important to understand just how incredibly, overwhelmingly popular is the welfare state. We’re told “attitudes are hardening”. They are; they’ve gone from massive support to massive support with a minor quibble about housing benefit. We must never imagine that anything could be less popular among the people of Britain than returning to an era when widespread public provision was replaced with charity and penury.

Of course, the day that politicians follow the will of the public over the ideological interests of the powerful and the financial interests of the corporations will be the day we live in a participative democracy.

Instead, Serco, G4S, Atos Healthcare and the rest make fabulous profits out of a declining welfare state. The more they can get the government to engage in expensive means testing the more profit they can cream off. It is they who spend the big money lobbying Ed Balls to believe pensioners should be assessed for winter fuel payments, knowing they’ll make much more profit than the public purse will save.

The anti-welfare lobby has erected a fence between the popular parts of the welfare state such as the NHS, education, roads, trains, pensions and the fire service and the less popular parts like housing benefit. So far has this gone that I suspect some reading this will be surprised to see schools and fire engines described as welfare.

“Destruction by anomaly”, the process of dismantling a good idea by finding tiny parts of that idea that look odd, will only go so far. “Why should rich pensioners get bus passes?” might gain some ground; “why should rich people get heart operations?” won’t. The assault on welfare has already gone well beyond where the citizens of the UK want it to go.

What does this mean for the report this week on welfare by an expert group commissioned by the Scottish Government? Only that it shows how desperately we need to get beyond the debate we’re having. That is not because I disagree with the report but because – at least in its main findings – few sane people could disagree. In a transitional period after independence we would need to share our welfare system with the rest of the UK while the full institutions of a new nation are developed.

Sure, but that’s only to say that for a transitional period on a rapidly-sinking Titanic everyone had to stand patiently on the deck while the lifeboats were lowered. It is not, in itself, a coherent argument for drowning.

But is this even a Scottish issue, one where our interests are different? The settled view of many commentators is that social attitude surveys show the gap in support for welfare on either side of the border is “not as big as all that”. As someone with a social science background, my mind spins at this simplification. Presumably this is also a case for interspecies marriage, given that the difference in DNA between us and a sheep is “not as big as all that”.

If you want to argue this seriously, you need to establish frameworks to identify how different is “different” by looking at normalised ranges of opinion spread and so on. Much more productive is to measure difference not in theory but in reality.

It is not to talk down the commitment of the other peoples of the United Kingdom to the welfare state to note that when Scotland has a chance to choose a political approach to welfare it makes a consistent, substantial and measurably different choice. No massaging of social attitude surveys will unelect the consistently socially democratic administrations we have had in Scotland.

The welfare debate has a starting point, shared to varying degrees by David Cameron and Ed Miliband. That assumes that welfare will decline as budgets get tighter – tax can’t be mentioned. Welfare should be divided into public services and benefits. Both must shrink, but where the process of shrinking the benefits part should be loud and shrill, the process of shrinking the public services part must be stealthy and surreptitious. And the latter shrinkage must be done through the rolling back of the principle of universalism, the continuing expansion of outsourced private sector profiteering and the expansion of means testing. The only guiding principle is “how much can we take away from the people before they squeal?”.

Is this where Scotland – devolved or independent – would choose to begin from? No. All the serious data shows that it isn’t where England would choose to begin either – even the Adam Smith Institute accepts that there are many more people in England who would raise tax than would cut services. But Scotland has taken that extra step and made this its firm, democratic will.

So, let us begin afresh. Let us make the radical and revolutionary step of accepting that a democracy is only governed with the consent of the people. The powers that be do not have consent for the assault on the welfare state. If we can start to dismantle the British habit of “feudal democracy” in which all we get to do is select our lords and masters, we might notice something important.

Welfare is not a contract between the state and the people, it is a contract between the people themselves. The state is nothing more than our useful vehicle for fulfilling that contact. My message to all those deficit hawks in London and Edinburgh is simple: this is not your welfare state to give or take away. In effect, I made an agreement with my neighbour that he’d look after me if I needed help and I’d look after him if he needed help. You were chosen by us to deliver this on our behalf, not to fashion yourself a crown to wear while you lecture us on our mistakes.

If the SNP wants to persuade Scots to vote for independence or if Labour wants to persuade us to vote for the Union, they’re going to have to stop saying what Secro and the plutocrats want them to say and start listening to what the citizens who elected them told them to do.

My vision of the future of the welfare state is not complicated: government, we instructed you to make the rich and the corporations pay their tax to protect our public services and benefits. So get on with it – your next instructions will follow shortly.

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation

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