Posts Tagged ‘‘One Nation’ Group’

Tory MP David Willetts’ Defence of the Welfare State

February 13, 2016

The Tory MP, David Willetts, a member of the ‘One Nation’ group within the party, which had been set up to reconcile the Conservatives with the NHS, wrote a defence of the welfare state in his 1992 book, Modern Conservatism. This is surprising, not only because Willetts was a Tory, but also because he was Thatcher’s former adviser on social security. He wrote

Nobody is very clear why a Conservative should support a welfare state. It seems to fit in with the highmindedness of the Liberals and the egalitarianism of the Labour party. But what is conservative about it? If Conservatives do support it, is this mere political expediency? …

Why have a welfare state: efficiency and community
The are two types of argument for a welfare state. Neither is exclusively conservative, but they both tie in closely with two crucial elements of conservative philosophy – the belief in markets and the commitment to community.

The market argument for welfare state is that it contributes to the successful working of a capitalist economy … [for instance] the development of unemployment benefit and retirement pensions contributes to economic efficiency by making it easier for firms to shed labour and to recruit new workers from a pool. Health care and education both raise the quality of a nation’s ‘human capital’ …

We may have explained the need for some of the fundamental services of a welfare state, but we still need to show why the state has such a big role in financing and organising them. This is where the next stage of the efficiency argument comes in. If there are voluntary, private schemes they encounter the problem of adverse selection – the tendency to get the bad risks … Commercial insurers are trying to do the very opposite and only accept what they would regard as the good risks. The logic of this drives the government to intervene and require everyone to take out insurance at the same premium. At this point we … have, in effect, invented state-run national insurance…

The efficiency argument [can] be stated in an even more rarefied form: it is difficult for a homeless family to be fit, or for a homeless child to do well at school, and this, in the long run, is an economic cost – which makes it rational for us to step in.

Rather than develop even more ingenious economic arguments for the welfare state, there comes a point when we really have to confront a simple moral obligation towards fellow members of our community. Regardless of whether people in need have been reckless or feckless or unlucky and unfortunate there comes a point when the exact explanation of how they became destitute ceases to matter. They have a claim on us simply by virtue of being compatriots. The welfare state is an expression of solidarity with our fellow citizens.

The market and community arguments together explain the remarkable consensus in most advanced Western nations that some sort of welfare state is both necessary and desirable. They explain why a Conservative can support the welfare state and also provide grounds for criticising particular institutional arrangements if they are not living up to those principles…

Mutual Insurance
It is when one turns to the role of the welfare state in redistributing resources that political differences emerge. For socialists the welfare state is perhaps the most powerful tool available to achieve their objective of equality … And because many people think this must be the rationale for the welfare state, they assume that anti-egalitarian conservatives must also be anti-welfare state.

There is a different view of the working of a welfare state. For the conservative it is an enormous mutual insurance scheme, covering us against ill-health, unemployment and loss of earning power in old age… We think of the welfare state as redistributing resources to others. But if, instead, we think of our own relationship to the welfare state during our lives, it is clear that what it really does is to reallocate those resources through the different stages of the life cycle. In this way resources are taken from us when we are working, and we are given command over resources when we are being educated, or unemployed, or sick or retired.

In Margaret Jones and Rodney Lowe, From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty Years of Britain’s Welfare State 1948-98 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2002).

Willetts is right about one of the best arguments for the welfare state being the moral duty towards one’s fellow citizens. It’s one of the major distinctions between British and Continental Socialism, and particularly between the Labour and Communist parties. Lenin and the Soviet Communists tended to sneer at the moral arguments for socialism and their adherents. Economic and sociological arguments, such as those marshalled by Fabians like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, are important but ultimately not as persuasive the moral imperative to make sure the poorest and weakest in society are properly protected and receive their due share.

Willett’s statement that the welfare state allows firms to get rid of staff easier, and frees up the labour market, is to my mind repulsive, but it might convince some businesspeople of the value of the welfare state as a worthwhile social investment.

Willetts wrote this nearly a quarter of century ago, however, and despite his arguments successive right-wing administrations are busy destroying the welfare state. This was certainly the case under Thatcher, and it’s continued under Major, Bliar and New Labour, and the current Tory administration. Jeremy Hunt and the other Tories wish to privatise the NHS by stealth, and thanks to aIDS nearly 590 disabled people have died of starvation or by their own hand, and 239,000 suffered severe mental illness.

Yet the Tories continue to maintain the sham illusion that somehow they are the party of the poor, and support the welfare state.

This is a lie. And any decent people in the Tories, who genuinely believe in the welfare state have two options. They should either stand up to Cameron and force him and his vile crew of old Etonian bruisers and butchers out, and instead elect a leadership that would have horrified Maggie by being wringing ‘wet’ in mould of Harold MacMillan and Rab Butler; or they should leave. Preferably they should also either join or vote for one of the opposition parties.

If they are genuinely supporters of the welfare state, then they must realise that they have absolutely no place in Cameron’s Tory party. Cameron’s a bog-standard Neoliberal with Hayek’s contempt for the poor. And anyone genuinely on the side of the poor, the sick and disabled should want to get rid of him and his clique.