The Battle for Britain and Daring to Believe We Can Do Better

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, January 11th 2014

In the last couple of weeks, two visions of Britain have been articulated. Both are clear, concise, utterly sure of themselves and the justice of their case, and both are equally partial.

One is Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s notion of a free floating, buccaneering, outward looking UK, which would slip its moorings with the European Union and reposition itself in new waters – mixing the English speaking world of the Anglosphere with re-establishing old connections with the Commonwealth and new ones with emerging nations.

The other is academic Linda Colley’s project to rejuvenate Britishness – the subject of her BBC Radio 4 series and book. Her solution is a grand design project to rejuvenate the union: an English Parliament outside London, written constitution and federalism.

These are both old stories told for new times. One is the vision of radical Tories and the other of enlightened liberal reform. Both are blindsided on the issues dear to the other – Hannan doesn’t touch the internal imbalances of power and wealth in the UK; Colley only mentions in passing the Euro crises and clearly thinks that Euroscepticism is a mindset of the deranged.

Yet both accounts miss something even more fundamental and human than this which is the nature and fabric of the UK and how it treats, looks after and cares for its people, and in particular, those who are poor, in need of support, or vulnerable.

The UK debate on welfare has now reached what can almost be called a crescendo of populist indignation and intolerance, orchestrated by a Tory Party leadership whose project of ‘progressive conservatism’ is now dead, aided by its right-wing cheerleaders in think tanks and the press.

There are several dimensions to this with, in the last week, David Cameron using Prime Minister’s Questions to mock and ridicule those on housing benefit as if were some kind of badge of shame. As another alarming sign of bad policies to come, he chose the example of families claiming up to £60-70,000 of housing benefit a year, to undermine the premise of the system. This group, even Cameron admitted, would run to a couple of individuals; the ‘Daily Mail’ estimated this would involve 59 households.

Before this George Osborne announced, as he grandstanded his tougher than tough approach to public spending and huge abstract cuts of £25 billion in the future, which will never come about, his plans to get tough on welfare. This included the possibility of no housing benefits for anyone aged under 25 years old, and the withdrawal of council housing from the affluent to make it a provision only for those in need.

This is aided by an atmosphere in parts of the mainstream media of demonising people on benefits and making the false dichotomy between those in work and those on benefits while ringfencing pensions. One recent example of this is Channel Four’s ‘Benefits Street’, set in James Turner Street, Birmingham – a street with, according to the programme 99 houses, 13 nationalities ‘and 5% in work’.

This comes from ‘Love Productions’ who claim they ‘specialise in thought-provoking, entertaining television’, yet with ‘Benefits Street’ this comes at a cost. It is the full scale, unapologetic projection of people on benefits as a sub-human underclass. They are presented as feckless, out of control, out of their minds on drink and drugs, engaging in petty crime, and wantonly living off the monies of hard-pressed taxpayers.

There are no stories of hope, empathy or redemption in this. We are not invited to connect with their individual backstories, understand and have interest in how they got into the chaotic, disheveled lives many of them are portrayed as living. Or see the possibility of change and transformed lives.

Instead, we are presented with a foreign world we are meant to only peer at and feel horror and revulsion. Next week it addresses the equally explosive issue of immigration and Romanians arriving in the street.

This is populist rating-chasing by an increasingly desperate Channel Four, and comes after ‘Benefits Britain, 1949’ where the unemployed were invited to offer themselves for national assistance support 1940s style. This attitude even creeped onto the station’s flagship evening news, with North of England correspondent Ciaran Jenkins feeling he had the right to door stop people and ask them if they were on benefits or in work.

This is another old story in a new setting. We have been here before in Victorian times, and before the rise of the labour and trade union movement. This is what happens in an age defined by corrosive individualism where the language of solidarity has been lost and inter-connectedness reduced to social media.

Yet strangely while public opinion has been softened up for this war on welfare and against people who are not like ourselves, the mood of the country is more ambiguous. It is true that this has to be seen as part of a thirty, even forty year political campaign, and that one of the most significant rightward shifts in opinion occurred not during Thatcher, but the New Labour years.

The failure of Blair and Brown to openly make the case for redistribution, progressive values and welfare, has cost Britain dear. It has prepared the ground for the current Cameron-Osborne offensive – which shows no sign of stopping or having any insight beyond that of base self-interest – politically for themselves, and in the ‘vision’ it offers the country.

This brings us back to Hannan and Colley. Some people say that the state of British democracy or the Scottish question should be debated on their own and not confused with other issues. The constitution they argue should not be conflated with economic and social issues.

These are actually the issues that matter: the inter-connectedness of the economy, welfare, social rights and how we think of and look after the most vulnerable in our society and also, their relationship to our constitutional arrangements and the state of democracy.

The tenor of the British benefits debate shows the long-term direction of its political classes and elites – Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem. We have to ask, and have the privilege of being able to ask north of the border, is this what we want for our children, our families and our aging relatives? Can’t we dare to believe that we can do much better?