Those who want to understand why, in 1946, a majority of people of Britain were eager to move to a system where they would enjoy welfare payments of right, rather than as acts of charity doled out by the wealthy, might perhaps do worse than take a look at JB Priestley’s famous 1945 play An Inspector Calls. In this enduringly popular drama – set in 1912, at the height of Britain’s imperial pomp and power – a police inspector turns up at the door of a wealthy manufacturing family, to investigate their role in the death of a young woman who has killed herself; and we might particularly want to consider the role of Mrs Birling, the invincibly snobbish and narrow-minded lady of the house, who – in her capacity as the dominant member of some charitable welfare board – has turned down the last desperate request for poor relief that might have saved the life not only of the young woman, who turns out to have been the mistress of Mrs Birling’s feckless son, but of her own unborn grandchild.
And if we want living proof that the spirit of Mrs Birling is alive and well in Britain today, then we need look no further than the remarks made this week by Conservative MSP Michelle Ballantyne, who told the Scottish Parliament that the two-child rule now applied to benefits in Britain – that is, that people on benefits will receive support for a maximum of two children only – was “fair”, because, after all, people who work and are not on benefits also have to make decisions about how many children they can afford.
Now of course, there is superficial appeal to this kind of casual claim that benefits are “unfair” to people who work. If the Tories’ enthusiasm for an economic system that leaves millions of full-time workers too ill-paid to support a family is their greatest failure of the last 40 years, their greatest success has certainly been their media-assisted propaganda triumph in persuading badly-paid workers – themselves often heavily dependent on in-work benefits – that their greatest enemies are, in fact, other benefit claimants.
As the Brexit debacle has demonstrated, though, the fact that large numbers of people agree with a statement does not make it right; and Ms Ballantyne’s remarks are in fact so cruel in their implications that there is an urgent need to challenge them. In the first place, the British benefits system – falsely portrayed as generous in so many irresponsible news stories down the years – is in fact among the meanest in western Europe. Families with three children claiming benefit and tax credits stand to lose just over £50 a week under the two-child cap; but even if that sum were enough to act as an incentive for irresponsible decisions to have further children, it is hard to see any “fairness” in punishing those children by deliberately impoverishing the whole family.
In the second place, the assumption behind Michelle Ballantyne’s words is immeasurably cruel to families who had more than two children at a time when they were well able to support them, but who have since suffered redundancy, illness, or bereavement; and their plight exposes how, under the endless negative pressure and stereotyping of recent years, Britain’s welfare state has deteriorated from a rights-based system, to one in which claimants are expected to forfeit much of their dignity, along with their basic right to privacy.
The two-child clause is not only condescending and brutal in itself, implying that society at large has a right to dictate to claimants how many children they may have; but the notorious exemption to it, the “rape clause” which says mothers may claim for additional children if they can prove they did not consent to the sexual acts in which they were conceived, must represent one of the most breathtaking and intrusive breaches of privacy ever enacted in Britain, and implies a double standard that seems to have become endemic in post-Thatcherite Britain – one set of rights and privacies for “people like us”, it seems, and quite another for those who need to claim help from the state.
And this, finally, brings us to the heart of the matter; the “othering” of benefit claimants that enables this return to near-Victorian levels of moral condescension and snobbery. For the idea that Britain is neatly divided between respectable citizens who pay their taxes, and benefit claimants who loll around taking advantage of the rest of us, is simply a lie, and one that can have tragic consequences. In our lifetimes, almost all of us will claim benefits of one kind of another, up to and including our state old-age pensions; and such is the problem of low pay in Britain today that a very high proportion of benefit claimants are also taxpayers.
As the First Minister pointed out in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, the benefits system is therefore not something that “we” do for the feckless unemployed, but something that we all do for all of us, to protect ourselves in hard times; and it is in that spirit that the Scottish Government is now trying, within its limited powers, to institute a Scottish benefits system which will run on more dignified and egalitarian lines.
Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers may not receive much electoral credit for this effort, of course; in this age of anger, beating up on the poor and needy is a popular move, while social democratic decencies are well out of fashion. Yet still, the hostility and arrogance implicit in Tory attitudes to benefit claimants, and so clearly exposed in Michelle Ballantyne’s remarks, may yet come back to haunt them; if only because all through history, the wisest thinkers have known that pity and condescension towards those in need are not enough, and that only those who approach with humility, with generosity of spirit, and with a full recognition that – but for fortune – their positions could easily be reversed, have any hope of offering the kind of help that heals, and binds our society together in kindness and solidarity, rather than deepening its increasingly painful wounds of inequality and division.
This article has been altered to say some families with three children could lose more than £50 a week in benefits, rather than £14 a week as it previously suggested.