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Four nations and a funeral: the demise of the British welfare state

Today sees the transformation of the British welfare system, combining crippling cuts to benefits with the full blown marketisation of England's NHS. This is Cameron's "compassionate conservatism". Scotland and the UK must find a different way.

Gerry Hassan
1 April 2013

The British welfare state is meant to be one of the ties that bind us together; along with the NHS and the BBC representing our common strands of citizenship.

Each has been remarkably eroded in recent years but on Monday April 1st huge changes will occur in the first two - the welfare state and NHS in England – which will have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of people up and down this country already hard pressed and vulnerable, and for the very idea of Britain itself.

A host of benefit changes are about to occur: the bedroom tax, the abolition of Disability Living Allowance, the housing benefit cap and a real cut in most benefits. At the same time, there will be the biggest overhaul of the NHS in England in decades, with private health care providers the world over drooling at the prospect of getting their hands on the NHS billions.

This is not the mandate David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith stood on in 2010. Cameron impressed on people that he was a different kind of ‘compassionate conservative’, stressing the perils of inequality and poverty, and citing the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s influential ‘The Spirit Level’.

Iain Duncan Smith professed his understanding and empathy of Easterhouse and its people, and women in particular. But everything the two have done post-2010 has been to return to type and worse.

The bedroom tax will affect 660,000 households across the UK, who will lose an average of £14 per week. In Scotland, according to Scottish Government research, when house building is at a 51 year low, 105,000 households will be affected. Eight out of ten households which it impacts upon have a disabled adult; 16,000 families affected have a child; this when according to the recent Breadline Britain study 29% of Scots live in poverty and cannot afford the basic essentials of life.

The abolition of the Disability Living Allowance will see outsourcers Atos incentivised in a £400 million contract to remove 500,000 people from the new benefit: personal independent payments.

This is the climate in which this week the Poverty Alliance held their Poverty Assembly, bringing together hundreds of diverse, angry voices from the most disadvantaged and poorest parts of Scotland.

Nichola Sadler and Hazel Ratcliffe are two young mothers from Fife. Nichola told of how after becoming, through no fault of her own, a single mother she felt she was ‘judged’ and ‘looked down upon’ at the job centre, and her ‘get up and go’ attitude and pride ignored.

Hazel told of the anxieties and wearisome pressures of managing financially day to day on benefits with kids. She told of how she planned and budgeted, and then would be thrown by the unexpected happening, when her son’s shoes wore out and she had no means to buy replacements.

Their accounts are ones of dignity and taking control of their lives but Scotland sadly isn’t as different from the rest of the UK as we like to think. In 1983 46% of Scots thought benefits were too low; today that figure stands at a mere 26%.

What we do have is Labour and SNP posturing on the bedroom tax and how best to oppose it. This directly helps no one and looks like plain naked posturing in face of the onslaught people are about to face.

Margaret Burgess, Minister for Housing and Welfare Reform, addressed the Poverty Assembly on Monday, and told people that ‘Scotland was a rich country’. All fine, but when asked to do something she responded that ‘Scotland didn’t have that many wealthy people’ and so we couldn’t do something such as raising the council tax top levels.

Instead, she told us, flying in the face of evidence, that the council tax freeze was ‘progressive’ and offered little action or coherence. Actually, Scotland could act if it wanted: we could unite to prevent evictions from the bedroom tax, and we could implement our own version of the mansion tax, asking the better off to contribute more at this time of crisis.

Part of Scotland doesn’t want to act but just grandstand. Other parts are even worse. One very senior health professional told me that ‘there was no interest in Scotland in structural change’ and that we should all just look to inner change: effectively a voice of complacent retreat and passivity.

Then there was the recent ‘GPs at the Deep End’ report which was drawn together from Glasgow East End GPs. What radical call to arms did this well-intentioned and timely gathering propose? Amazingly, suggestions of additional time with GPs for patients, serial encounters between the two, better connections across the front line, learning and leadership.

Frankly this is barely adequate as a response to anything but training accreditation and looks thirty years out of date. People are facing hardship, demonisation and an ideological onslaught, and tidy service reconfiguration isn’t going to stop it while our GPs get more depoliticised, and even in Scotland act as small autonomous businesses.

Adrian Sinfield reflected at the Poverty Assembly that ‘the welfare state as we know it’ is effectively dead, the Fabian good news story of the march of progress through the end of the Poor Laws to Beveridge and enlightenment is over and now in reverse gear.

Britain has become a land of harsh judgements, punitive measures and decisions towards those most vulnerable, with a narrow, nasty populism on welfare which mixes the worst of human emotions about insecurities, people getting benefits they don’t deserve, and immigration fears.

The British welfare state came of age in that moment of the Second World War where the British people collectively decided to create a different future, and as the fate of the war perilously shifted from the Germans and Japanese to Allies, affirmed in the Beveridge Report and subsequent debates, that we wished to define ourselves by how we looked after each other.

That was a long time ago and those principles and attitudes no longer seem to shape Britain. Instead, we now have an increasingly fragmented, bitter, divided country, and the slow, painful demise of the British dream of the welfare state and, in England, the NHS. 

We have to take a stand against this now, and where we can in Scotland, mitigate, oppose and present a different way. That means challenging our politicians, political debate and public services to do better and rise above the ‘business as usual’ or, even worse, business model of development. This is a defining point for Scotland and the four nations of the UK.

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