Reflecting on actions announced at the recent Conservative party conference, Ian Macrae says that Tories are attacking the underclass their predecessors created.
Being on Tyneside during the 1980s was not necessarily unremittingly depressing or grim. But it was a time and place from which lessons can and should be drawn. The demise – some would say the wanton destruction of core industries and the fracturing of communities which relied on them – are acts which reverberate and have consequences today.
Daily work, which had been a cohesive and supportive element in the lives of many men and women, became less available, less reliable, less of a reality.
What has become known as benefits culture came into being not because people suddenly became less willing to work but because there was much less work around for people to do.
And so the consequences build layer on layer.
Faced with this grim reality of a new daily grind, life becomes something to be got through and people start looking for relief or means of escape with what little money they have for funding this escapism. Drink, drugs, gambling become attractive alternatives even if they don’t actually alleviate the misery.
At 11 o’clock one morning in a Gateshead pub I watched a man come in, buy a half of lemonade and put the rest of what was then called the family allowance into a fruit machine. What little he won he put back. When it was gone it was gone. And so was he. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his family. He was simply finding the nearest available thing which took him somewhere else.
And in these circumstances health, wellness and well-being do not thrive. The toll taken on bodies of demanding physical work results in physical impairment, lack of purpose and the sheer slog of getting through the days. Funding family life, or failing to do so, has a deleterious effect on mental health.
And it’s these survivors and the generation or so which has succeeded them, those who reaped the whirlwind brought down on them by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, who the Conservative element of the current coalition target. And disabled people find themselves part of the same sad scenario.
George Osborne announces a benefit cap brought down from £25,000 to £23,000 a year. He sets this out in tones of moral outrage designed to indicate his disgust that there are far too many people on benefits living the life of Reilly on £25,000. This, of course, is a myth.
Iain Duncan Smith announces that those most ‘at risk’ of mis-spending their benefit will be put on prepaid cards which won’t be able to be used to buy drink or dope. Again, the implication is that this problem is endemic. Even if it was, this would be no solution as some people would undoubtedly find other people who would be happy to help them turn their card into ready cash – provided it was for less than the prepaid value of the card.
But this is a win-win situation for the Conservatives. It shows them as being ruthlessly tough on the wantonly idle who they present as feckless wasters. It continues to serve their agenda of the something for nothing society. And best of all, it targets a group who would never vote for them in the first place. It’s politics taken to levels of cynicism arguably not even achieved by Margaret Thatcher.