By the time I arrived in the 1970s, it had recessed into a ‘Category D’ village – ‘D’ for dying. The swimming bath had been turned into a car tip. One house had subsided into the pit beneath and the plot was left, empty, as a warning to others. The whole place reeked (in some houses literally) of poverty.
Yet in the centre of the sprawling village, in stark contrast, stood two impeccable Memorial Cottages – provided by the Durham Aged Miners Homes Association (formed 1898), and paid for out of a voluntary levy on working miners’ wages, which went to support miners who reached the age of 65 and were turned out of their tied cottages.
They stand there still, a testimony that we know all about the Big Society up here in County Durham.
Charity and Taxes
In his recent budget, Chancellor George Osborne restricted to a quarter of their income the amount that rich people could claim against tax for ‘charitable donations’.
Let’s acknowledge it; it was a laudable attempt to stop an outrageous tax scam – Liam Fox’s ‘Atlantic Bridge’ lobby group had charitable status. It was part of Osborne’s move against ‘morally repugnant’ tax avoidance.
Shortly afterwards, however, Tory MPs started coming out of the woodwork. Just as the super-rich provide most of our taxes, they argued, they provide most of our charitable giving – by his ‘controversial’ measure (as it was now being called), the Chancellor was threatening the survival of Britain’s essential charities.
The furore reached a shrill peak today with a Telegraph editorial which accused the Chancellor of reneging on the Big Society – on the Tory promise to make:
“a fundamental break from the post-war assumption that the state would care for every need of every citizen from the cradle to the grave. Even before the crash of 2008, it was clear that this paternalistic ambition was not sustainable, let alone palatable … The essence of [the ‘Big Society’ idea] was to give people control over their own lives and get government off their backs.”
Back to before the Welfare State
The Telegraph article should be a clarion wake-up call to the people of Britain, because it is – at last – an explicit acknowledgement of what we have always suspected to be the truth … that the Big Society is a policy to destroy the Welfare State.
Osborne’s move against donations to charity, fumed the Telegraph, is emblematic of ‘a worrying premise: …that the state is the proper recipient of all money to be spent on public services’. And so we have it – the Telegraph Tories want the state to CEASE to be the proper provider of public services, and they want the ‘Big Society’ to take us back pre-1945, to a world where people’s needs are not met as of right by the welfare state, but where they are met by charity, and by self-help associations … such as the Durham Aged Miners Homes Association!
People in the north-east with memories, or a knowledge of history, will be quaking in their metaphorical boots at such a suggestion.
The miners of County Durham could tell this government all about the Big Society, charity and self-help. That was all they had before 1945. And, quite frankly, it stank.
It was at the mercy of the market – generous when times were good, but utterly inadequate when times were bad. Above all, it failed to touch the grinding poverty in which hundreds of thousands of people lived in the north-east before the Second World War.
Charity is capricious and random. It does not follow the need, but the whims of the giver – cancer and children’s charities usually do well, animal charities suffer during a recession, and issues such as asylum-seekers and psychiatric needs tend to struggle. Often, the generosity of donations is related to the degree to which the charity is seen as ‘deserving’ – and thus the ‘Big Society’ is umbilically linked to the government’s ‘scrounger’ narrative.
Above all, shifting the balance of care-in-society from the state to the community (charity and self-help) would be a reversion of the rights of ourselves as citizens. Someone who goes to the state to claim legal benefits – who does so because a law defines eligibility and they fit the criteria – is exercising thereby their right to state support … their right as defined in law. They can take their child allowance, JSA or tax credits with the same self-pride that they would take their wages, or seek a rebate from their electricity company. This right has been hard-fought and even-harder-won over the last century. It has always been regarded as the ultimate achievement and benefit of democracy – of government of the people, by the people … FOR the people.
Charity is based on a different premise altogether. It is given as a favour, by someone who has more than you, out of their generosity. They have a right – to withhold it – you have nothing. You have to ASK (‘beg?) for charity. It is not yours as of right. They decide if your case is 'worth' it. Charity is a judgement on you and (since you are already reduced to the point where you have had to ask) it STARTS with a presumption of failure and inferiority.
Charity as a Failure of Society
The concept behind the Welfare State was of the state as a community of all its inhabitants, in which a country might reasonably be expected to be able to produce enough to provide all its inhabitants with a decent standard of living.
In the ‘Austerity’ years immediately after the war, this presumption had a stark reality for the rich – ‘bread for all before cake for any’. As the years went by, and the country prospered, there was a realisation that ‘cake for some’ is acceptable … but only as long as there was always ‘bread for all’.
Today, I floated the idea that charity, therefore, represents a failure of the Welfare State – any state which was truly providing a basic standard of living for all its citizens in theory wouldn’t need any ‘charity’ (except international aid, of course) ... the community-through-the-state should proactively be picking up the whole tab.
Looked at by this logic, the mere existence in a society of ‘charities-which-are-needed’ is arguably a cause for shame for that society.
Nowadays, people use the term ‘welfare state’ in the wrong way – they think of it almost in terms of a charity, doling out benefits to all who ask.
This is a very inadequate and misleading definition of the term.
We need to re-establish the phrase ‘Welfare State’ as a term defining the nature of our state; rather in the same way as we might speak of ‘a Fascist state’ or ‘a Federal State’, we in Britain today have ‘a Welfare State’ – one in which the prime and overriding concern of the government is the welfare of its citizens.
The Tories – explicitly – want to change this. They want a ‘small state’ which has devolved some responsibilities for the welfare of its citizens to a random collection of charities and self-help groups. Under cover of personal-empowerment, we are seeing no less than a government which is seeking to shed its role of ultimate responsibility for its citizens’ welfare.
If you do not find this outrageous, then you are either blinkered, or so rich as to be invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.
The Labour leadership, as always, is ambivalent. They mutter something about ‘benefits and dangers’ and try not to upset the apple-cart on what they see as a popular ‘centrist’ Tory idea.
Well they need to wake up.
Because the ‘Big Society’ is an absolute evil.
It will remove rights from Britain’s citizens that took a century to accumulate, and threatens thereby once again to make us beholden and submissive.
It needs opposing.
Britain is ‘a Welfare state’ which cares for its citizens from the cradle to the grave, and the proper provider for basic needs is the state.