With the approach of the weekend I fret about what topic I can try to interest the reader in next week. But it seems the answer is clear: the Philpott case. A bit like the immigration issue, if you mentioned it you were in immediate danger of being labelled a closet racist, but now we can have an open and honest discussion. So it was too with Welfare.
In that case you were a stony-hearted – boot on the neck – oppressor of the poor. In both cases the bleeding hearts hoped by such calumnies to shut down the discussion and for generations they succeeded. Now Philpott has breached the dyke in magnificent fashion and the second of these taboo subjects has fallen to the dictates of rational argument.
If Philpott has done nothing else positive in his whole miserable, outrageous life he has, at least, opened the floodgates for a full scale debate on the whole meaning of Welfare. Now, let us be clear from the beginning: all right minded people pity the poor and disadvantaged and are prepared to move heaven and earth to ease their plight. But just as vehemently we feel a mighty anger at those who pretend to be in that category.
Long ago (1988) the British Shoe Corporation closed on me after years of pursuit for the back rent and balance of a 14-year lease for a business whose premises they rented to me. I had sold it in Glasgow six years before. You see, in legal parlance, I was ‘The Leasee of Last Resort’. It is a practice now banned by Parliament. What had happened was that the man I had sold my health club to had got into business and matrimonial difficulties and had done a runner to Australia. Muggins, here, was left to pick up the pieces. The Shoe Corp was finally advised by its sharp lawyers in London that the best way to force my hand was to take out an order in bankruptcy. At that time I was coming to the end of my 21-year lease for my Plymouth city centre health club and was making preparations for a new line of business – the ski centre – and I knew that if they made me bankrupt that was never going to happen. I was forced, as a result, to liquidate all my assets and that included two houses.
As a now homeless person with three children I ended up in a housing association property, but I was enabled, with the help of investors, to continue the ski project and drive it forward to completion.
The reason I tell you all this is that I saw at close quarters the benefits system in action – or at least two significant parts of it. My neighbour on one side was on disability benefit. There was a brand new disability car on the driveway. You can imagine my shock when later I saw that same person’s photo in a local newspaper, having completed a half marathon. My neighbour on the other side used to get up at 5.30am for his six o’clock work start. He told me that out of about 60 housing association properties only three were paying the rent. He felt a deep rage at this. The rest were claiming either to be one-parent families, disabled or unemployed. There were a few pensioners. Daily we could see the so-called unemployed going off to their cash-in-hand jobs or the fellas of the so called one-parent families parking their cars down the road and sneaking in through the back door to spend the night. So let’s not pretend that there is not widespread abuse.
The burden, especially during the longest recession in 200 years, has become intolerable as well as unsupportable and its effects are deeply pernicious.
Next year is a special year for me: I will have been at work for 60 – yes, 60 – years. I did not celebrate my 70th birthday – particularly, as I felt that in today’s world, unless you are unlucky, 70 is no big deal. But the thought has recently occurred to me that next year is different: it represents my own little Diamond Jubilee. You see, I am old school; I am deeply proud of not being a burden to my country and blessed with health that allows me to continue contributing my penny’s worth to its well being. I get up in the morning and walk the mile to work and there I meet the public – to whom I must continue to be nice and disavow what some would say is a normal right to be a grumpy old man. I set to, repairing shoes, cutting keys, servicing watches, engraving trophies, making wooden house and other signs and framing pictures. None of these things could I do before the age of 55, so I think I may have disproved that old dictum that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.
When I was about to leave school at 15, the idea of not working was not on the radar. There weren’t benefits as we know them today. My foster parents took the view they had done their bit and it was up to me to do mine. Three years after starting I got hauled off to the Army to do my bit there for two years as a National Serviceman and I managed to get shot at by the IRA. Quite sobering it was. But the point of all this is about being useful to society if you can. I was 21 when I heard President Kennedy’s famous line in his inaugural speech when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Did Philpott ever think such thoughts? I think not. Nor, unfortunately, do multitudes of others. That is the trouble. It was right that William Beveridge, in his famous report, sought to abolish the evils of want, hunger, idleness, ignorance and disease. It was wrong that noble concept was hijacked by scroungers and the workshy. We – all of us – are culpable for the stupidity we displayed when we allowed it to happen. Naively we believed in peoples’ essential goodness and probity. Yet it has turned otherwise honest folk, who saw their neighbours getting away with it, into dishonest scroungers themselves. Now, perhaps, the party is coming to an end and we can begin the long climb back to our core values. We may, in the process, start to balance the national books.
As for Philpott himself, he represents all that is despicable in our species. He was a bombastic, narcissistic bully with a deeply cruel streak who even imagined he was fast becoming a celebrity, perhaps eventually a national treasure. He thought he could lead the media by the ears believing it to be something else he could control. He was also very stupid. Did it never occur to him that fire is not so easily controlled as the hapless women who came into his orbit? He may continue to try to play the big man as he has done all his life, particularly with women, but that won’t last five minutes under the rigours of the prison system. I shudder to think what might happen if his fellow inmates gain access to him. Prisoners are infamous for exacting their own kind of primitive justice, especially where crimes against children are concerned. A speedy visit to that same eternity to which his lunatic actions consigned his six innocent children might well end up being a much sought after escape.
It is natural that workers in the public sector seek to weaken the law of the jungle in their state-funded workplace as best they can, but it must be remembered that the jungle is still where wealth is created.
It cannot be allowed to open up a gulf in remuneration, security and work conditions which causes resentment in that part of the economy that must produce the wealth to keep things going. It is unimaginable that any private business should say to its workforce, ‘don’t bother attending the office for the seven weeks before, during and after the Olympics. Do it all from home!’ But that is what is proposed for no less than 400,000 civil servants working in Central London.
This kind of disconnect with reality speaks volumes. Not even communist Chinese economics came up with such a ludicrous suggestion at their own Olympics.
There are two worlds which exist within our country: one of them is the closeted world of the public sector and the other is the brutal world of the private sector .
The Victorians had two guiding principles: sound money and a small, non-intrusive state. They ran the civil service with 4,000 against today’s 500,000.
They ran India with 1,000, spent 2% of GDP on Armed Forces which controlled half the world and all its oceans. Such was their power that they imposed the Pax Britannica which lasted a hundred years. It was only the second universal peace since Rome’s famous Pax Roma. They were stunningly successful in almost all their endeavours – except for one: they did not care sufficiently for the poor and disadvantaged. But even here, they began to develop a conscience.
Prompted by the evangelicals and people like Dickens, they began to mend their ways and see that their Christian beliefs did not sit properly with the squalor to be seen on their streets. So little by little, welfare became an issue.
By 1945 it became the lodestar which governed all state thinking. Armies of bureaucrats came forward to administer the new system (armies of what, when I was doing national service, were known as malingerers) also came forward with their hard-luck stories.
So at the very time that wealth creation was being relegated, the welfare state was being elevated. In the end, the welfare state became insupportable.
If this recession has served no other purpose but finally to get us to see all this then it will not have been in vain.
Of course, we must continue to do our duty by the disadvantaged, but we face a hard task in winkling out the malingerers.
Almost all of the third world countries must go down the road we went in taking better care of their people – but if they are wise they will learn from our mistakes.
As it is, at the moment, they enjoy a huge advantage over us competitively in that they do not carry the huge expense of even a limited welfare state. That, together with much lower wages, makes it next to impossible for the West to compete.
But their peoples are already demanding – and getting – increased pay packets; they are also demanding better work conditions and welfare for the disadvantaged – all of which will cost money.
When we have eventually completed the much harder task of convincing all our able-bodied people who presently feel no conscience about not working to work, there will be a meeting point at which we will all be competing on a substantially more level playing field.
This scenario has already been played out in several former third world countries such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. They were all once undercutting us wholesale, and it will be the same with China, India and Brazil.
There are penalties with being an innovator – the first in the field in any activity. Inevitably you make lots of mistakes; but those coming later can take advantage of what you got wrong as well as the much greater number of things you got right. Once of the reasons Germany created the as successful an industrial model as it did was because it was able to avoid making the same mistakes we did.
One of those was with its technical colleges and apprenticeships. They elevated distinction on the factory floor; doctors of engineering and the sciences were as highly regarded as doctors of medicine in Britain and the landed gentry. There was not the same prejudice against those who got their hands dirty as opposed to those who kept them clean, as there was in Britain. Your smart boy was as likely to head for the factory as he was for the professions.
It is easy to forget that as little as 10 years ago Germany was being talked about as the sick man of Europe, having taken our place pre-Thatcher. But then she set about freeing up her labour markets and keeping down costs, including labour. Result: Germany über alles. And we must do the same.
The newly released Beecroft Report must be acted on. If we want jobs, we must make it as easy as possible for firms to hire, and that has to include the right to fire. No employer gets rid of a worker who is an asset to their company, and workers must know that their best protection is to be so. Only the skiver needs to fear, and why shouldn’t he? He won’t turn around our fortunes.