Shirley William on Demands for Cutting Tax and the Myth of the Social Security Scrounger

SWilliams Book Pic

Yesterday I put up a couple of pieces from Shirley Williams’ book, Politics Is For People, in which she attacks the free market ideology of Milton Friedman, and notes how bureaucracy actually grew under the Tories, despite their declared concern for cutting it in the name of efficiency.

The former Labour MP and founder of the SDP also has a few critical observations of the various campaigns to cut taxes, and the myth that people on social security/ jobseeker’s allowance/unemployment benefit/the dole are scroungers.

She writes

A second line of attack, clearly closely related to the reaction against ‘big government’, is on the high public expenditure necessitated by the welfare state. The taxpayers’ revolt began in France with the Poujadist party, wand was later taken up in Denmark, where Per Glijstrup’s anti-tax party had a remarkable, if brief, period of success. it was an element in the 1976 defeat of the Swedish socialist government, and then reached its high-water mark in the triumphant passage of California’s Proposition 13 in 1978. Proposition 13 tied local property taxes to their 1976/7 level, and imposed a 1 per cent maximum on the annual increase, effectively halving the property tax yield. But as the effects of Proposition 13 have been felt on education and other publicly financed services, public enthusiasm for tax cutting has waned. An attempt to pass a similar proposal, known as Jarvis Two, to halve California’s state taxes was heavily defeated in June 1980. The recent history of anti-tax movements is one of dramatic advances which are not then sustained.

One particular form the attack on high public expenditure takes, one that is popular and easy to get across in electoral terms, is the allegation that many people are living off the welfare state who could perfectly well survive on their own. Popular newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic give a lot of space to individual cases – and there always are some – of people proclaiming how they have milked the social security system of thousands of dollars or thousands of pounds. Everybody has heard of somebody who can’t be bothered to get a job, or who stays at home living on welfare because his wage in a job would be little more than his welfare cheque. The ‘poverty trap’ – incomes-related benefits which are lost or reduced as the breadwinner’s income rises – provides a rationale for ‘scrounging’. It really is true that some heads of large families may be better off not working.

Yet the evidence for large-scale ‘scrounging’ is thin; most people much prefer a job to enforced leisure. Nor is the popular hostility against scroungers a by-product of the welfare state. It has a much older history. Ricardo himself inveighed against the Speenhamland system, under which wages were subsidized by the parish if they fell below a minimum level which was linked to the price of bread. ‘The principle of gravitation is not more certain than the tendency of such laws to change wealth and vigour into misery and weakness’, Richardo wrote in On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). It might be Professor Milton Friedman speaking. At the end of the eighteenth century, the indefatigable Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham turned his mind to the rehabilitation of convicts, many of them indigent people without work. He proposed to establish a panopticon, a sort of multi-industry establishment, which he described, chillingly, as ‘a mill to grind rogues honest, and idle men industrious’. Similar wishes are still expressed on the floor of Congress or the House of Commons by ardent Conservatives; only the language alters. (Pp. 30-1).

Williams here is exactly right. Mike over at Vox Political, the Angry Yorkshireman and many other bloggers have noted that Thatcher and the Conservatives have consciously adopted the Victorian principle of ‘least eligibility’ in their welfare reforms in order to make living on benefit as humiliating and degrading as possible for those on it, such as the disabled and the unemployed. The incident Mike reported on his blog on Tuesday, in which a woman with dementia was insulted by a member of the DWP, when she failed to answer a security question due to her disability, is an extreme example of this attitude. This just shows how long the Left have known about the extremely illiberal attitude to poverty at the very heart of Thatcherism and its explicit Victorian antecedents.

As for the Poujadists, they were a petit-bourgeois, anti-Socialist, anti-trade union party founded in the 1950s. Poujade was a French shopkeeper, who launched a campaign encouraging shopkeepers not to serve striking workers. One of the books I read a few years ago on Fascism included them as one of the forms it took in the post-War period. And Michael Heseltine was less than impressed with them, and used them as an insult in his spat with the Leaderene when she was goose-stepping around Downing Street. He called her a ‘Poujadist’, which accurately reflects her socio-economic background as the grocer’s daughter, and her petty hostility to the organised working class. It was a reference lost on the gentlemen of the press, however, who thought he meant she was a ‘putschist’. Well, that too, when it comes to petty Fascism.

Williams in her book has many good ideas. It was too bad that she and the rest of her cronies were more interested in splitting away to form the SDP and attacking Labour than squaring up to the Tories.


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