Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Small Cry of Despair

As far as I can see it, we are witnessing the final dismantling of the Welfare State – at least of the Welfare State as it was conceived in 1948. Certainly, the ‘Welfare State’ we have today would be unrecognisable to those heroes who after the Second World war constructed our revolutionary, government-run, socialist-principled system which promised to care for its citizens ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Much of it – social housing, education the NHS, prisons etc. – has been or is being hived off to (profit- or non-profit-making) private companies. The role of the state is no longer to DELIVER services in these areas, but simply to pay for them (and their profits); the state meets its obligation to care, no longer by DOING so, but by making laws about what it expects and who it will blame if the system fails.
Meanwhile, the area of the Welfare State still firmly under government administration – benefits – is being scaled back systematically to save costs. Apparently we can no longer AFFORD to care for the elderly, support the unemployed, pay pensions, send poor children to university etc., and we need ‘austerity measures’ to ‘reduce the deficit’ … by which we mean the gap between what the rich are prepared to hand over in taxes, and the needs of the population.
At the same time, I have an awful feeling that we are losing our democracy. Not of course, democracy in the sense of being allowed to speak, being allowed to vote. Elected mayors, elected police chiefs – EVERYTHING seems to be being given a veneer of ‘democracy’ nowadays. But democracy in the sense of being able to INFLUENCE anything, in the sense of being listened to … well that’s a different matter, isn’t it? Boundary changes, voter registration, Westminsterisation – it seems to me that government is becoming more centralised, more remote than ever.

No blame on the rich
Strangely, I do not blame the rich for this. As someone who did two jobs for most of his working life, I well know how irksome it is to hand over to the taxman a significant chunk of what you have worked so hard to earn … to support people some of whom, you know for a fact, have no intention of ever working at all themselves. (And if you find this a right-wing comment then you are not socialist – you simply lack empathy.)
To a limited extent, I DO blame the politicians. At the last election the electorate were given the option between two parties who both promised to keep taxes low and, where even the Labour Party was promising to introduce austerity measures to cut benefits, I don’t see how anyone can complain if employers and rich people felt it was ethically acceptable to hang onto their money and let the poor, simply, go hang.

Where are the poor?
No, as I say, I can understand why businessmen and wealthy people are quite happy to see the way things are going. It’s what they’ve been wanting for years.
What I cannot understand is the LACK of protest from the underclasses – from those whose rights and benefits are being eroded.
Recently, I put a letter in my local newspaper to the effect that the welfare state was being dismantled. Next week I was attacked, quite abusively, by a guy who, obviously, was a Tory. To be frank, I would say that’s fair enough.
What amazed me was the next week NOBODY wrote to defend me! No local firebrand outraged with indignation. Not one of my Labour Party colleagues taking the attack to the Tories. Not one of the local people whose benefits are being stolen. Nobody!
Why is the local Labour Branch meeting STILL attracting less than a couple-of-dozen people – why isn’t it bursting with angry people demanding action?
We have a local Labour Party facebook page – why do barely half-a-dozen people comment?
To be fair, I’ve always acknowledged that it is very difficult for young working people with a family to get involved in politics, they simply have too much on the hands already. But 15% of the working-age population of Aycliffe are workless; they have NO EXCUSE WHATSOEVER for inaction.

It is tempting to criticise the Labour Party. Why are they failing to mobilise the social underclass? Why have we even failed to mobilise the young, who have been disproportionately hit? I have been one of those who have been open about the failure of the Labour leadership to make statements in support of campaigns where one would have thought that members were there for the taking. And if no one tells people who lack familiarity with politics what to campaign for and how to campaign, how can we expect such people to campaign?

But, to be fair, you could equally ask why the socially deprived and the young have not joined the Labour Party.

Historical parallels
We DID have riots, of course, earlier this summer, but even the most sanguine radical would find it hard to see in them an outworking of socialist agitation. Rather they demonstrated amongst the working classes well-organised criminality, an obsession with the symbols of capitalist materialism, and a stupidity which burns down local businesses in an area of high unemployment.
It would be very easy to lapse into a right-wing scorn which sees the outcome of 60 years of a Welfare State in fecklessness and carelessness. The Roman plebs had their ‘bread and circuses’; is it really the case that we have beer and X-Box? Nero fiddled while Rome burned; is the British working class really watching TV while the Welfare State disintegrates?

As an historian, I was always puzzled why ordinary Germans did less to prevent Hitler getting power in 1933. I could see that, once he was in power, the Gestapo were a strong argument not to oppose him – but what about the time when he was rising to power during those four years of depression, 1929-33? Did nobody see the dangers? Why was there no successful campaign to stop him?
Our current situation has helped me understand why this was so.
Perhaps they simply could not be bothered.

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