The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
July 10, 2008

Cameron gets just tough enough on the fat and the poor - argues Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Good analysis; worthless policies - or that is Richard D. North's take on David Cameron's "Broken Society" speech.

I have no idea whether David Cameron's "Broken Society" speech in Glasgow (7th July 2008) was serious. That is, I have no idea whether it was made to test the water or was an expression of solid personal conviction and political commitment. For now, it's good to note that the language and the big picture are about right. Here are some constructive criticisms, the best of them based on personal experience.

Society isn't broke
Firstly, David Cameron uses the "broken society" mantra a little too loosely. We don't live in a broken society or anything like it. Even a seriously right-wing person (me, for instance) would probably suppose that there are 10 per cent of people who have far more invested in their multiple social failures than in trying to get out of them. They are the chronic and acute victims of welfare dependency. They probably need rather a lot of public money spent on them so that they find work and bring up children who can absorb a few basic skills like the three R's and smiling and speaking clearly. They probably also need a bigger police presence so they are not terrorised in their neighbourhoods. But they could be as awful as all get-out, and not break a society. Nor is their misery a symptom of a wider failure, unless you fancy blaming the welfarism of which their suffering is an unintended consequence.

The wider malaise
Some sort of social malaise is indeed very widespread. Bad manners are drearily rife. They manifest themselves in fit people using disabled parking, or dog-owners ignoring the poop-and-scoop rule, or drivers tail-gaiting, or business people not bothering to turn their mobile phone to silent mode on trains, or the young swearing loudly on buses. All these petty and tiresome failings lead us to another: people are inclined to be abusive if one remarks to them that their behaviour is not great. But none of this adds up to a broken society.

One might argue that there is new infantilism about. This manifests itself in gracelessness. And there is a cynicism and nihilism which is causing real suffering. But these are intellectual and emotional habits which cause suffering to the people who have them. They are not symptoms, causes or signs of a broken society.

A politician is bound to want to link the deep problems of the minority with the behavioural mores of the majority. So it makes sense for David Cameron to risk returning to territory which has been visited by (honourably but disastrously) Margaret Thatcher (with "There's no such thing as society") and John Major (with "Condemn a little more, explain a little less"). Mr Cameron needs to find out whether he has sufficiently re-branded the Conservatives. Can he now speak like a Conservative?

Cameron's rather good speech
The answer is a tentative yes, especially granted that people seem now to be discussing a taste for authenticity. The Tories can make tough love their home territory now as it always was.

Cameron's remarks were sensible enough. Here's a reminder of two crucial passages:

The thread that links it all [broken society] together passes, yes, through family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, poverty, poor policing, inadequate housing, and failing schools but it is a thread that goes deeper, as we see a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality.
We as a society have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.
This is good stuff.

The message is about right
I can speak here with something like authority on the messaging of the "Responsibility Agenda". In the past three or four years, I have spoken at conferences of public health professionals and some social workers. They wheel me on because I say that lots of people are poor, fat, rude, ignorant and criminal (sometimes all at once) because they are lazy. I then sweeten the pill by saying that it may not be all their fault: they may be stupid as well. And then I prove how non-judgemental I am by stressing that the lower echelons of society are likely to be stupid because most people who aren't stupid have stopped being poor or lazy. (Which doesn't stop lots of them being rude.)

But I seem to get the most smiles and nods when I say that parents don't dare say "no" to their children. I even keep the cheerful ambience when I say that middle class parents are weak because they are crippled by guilt (because they know they are too absent) and working class parents are crippled by a longing to indulge.

This sort of talk would be political suicide even for those politicians who believed it to be true. I am not recommending it to anyone who seeks votes. But many kind and thoughtful people who work in our public services - who know poor people well - agree with me.

I have been very struck by a widespread acceptance that society can't fix itself merely by supporting the disadvantaged. They will need to be helped to generate some degree of earned self-respect. If I am very careful, I can sometimes persuade audiences that shame can come into the equation. I can smuggle this thought in best if I argue that people need to have a sense of shame before they can have self-esteem. It's not I or society who can effectively shame people, it is themselves.

Actually, I think society does need to shame people as well as support them. But that is too tough a message for political use.

When we come very briefly to the policy announcements in David Cameron's speech, I fear he is next to useless. A tax break for marriage won't make fathers stay home or couples read to their children. A gaol sentence for knife crime doesn't help us if we've no idea what degree of knife crime will incur it. Possession? Brandishing? Slashing? Stabbing?

Anyway, we can fix knife crime and gun crime and even the gang culture and the "broken society" will stay awful for a small percentage of people and tiresome for us all.

David Cameron has done rather well in setting up the responsibility agenda as something he can't do much about. The public may respond quite well to being told that the remedy lies in their own hands. Public money may help the most disadvantaged. The rest of us will have to sort ourselves out.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Hello Richard

On Giving ways to those on benefits to generate self respective etc

You could take a look at this "Bizfizz" idea in Burslem Stoke on Trent.

What seems to happen is this (using myself as example)

Old geezer of 59 been on incapacity benefits six weeks wondering what to do next.

Supremely confident lady ex private sector surveyor (a public servant can't swing the baton on this idea I reckon) arrives and chats for hours deriving an audit of all the skills, hobbies and plans of the target (me)

She then puts the profile (without identifying the person) to conference both meeting and email net of up to 100 people easing into self employment from benefits each of whom has their own hurdles to leap.

Having thus accessed about 3000 years of collective commercial, industrial and benefits experience she gets back their suggestions what the anonymous target should do for self employment and giving contacts.

She calls it free market network.

What also happens is that businesses offset business rates if they are carrying dead area. Last week an estate agent provided a rent free office suite to a bizfizz (coached into) self employment client. Just pay that portion of business rates. Small industries seem to do the same with spare non earniong workshop capacity.

I am testing the water on this for our tenant in a house up Bolton. He is signing on the chat there. He moved from London where he did van courier but his skill is in IT building and fixing computers.

In Burslem one of the Bizfizz clients is doing internet cafe and ethical recycling of computers. So IF that scheme cares to train my tenant lad with his transferable skills the recycling regs and methods then I have a van and waste carrier licence he can use to kick off self employed in Bolton.

I have a war pension for lung damage. And as it got worse as I aged I have not been able to see the wood for the trees what to do. I am an engineer but cannot now work exposed to solder etc. I have not worked in electrical engineering since 1993.

One of those odd things in life is that we can see pretty quickly what other people should do to move up. But we cannot do the same for ourselves. (Perhaps yhou have to have been at the bottom of the pile to understand this RDN)

And this seems to be the genius of the netwoprk idea. Harness 3000 years of collective experience to come up with a plan for you.

Have a look maybe.

The other matter is the All Work Test. It is clearly irrational to apply it only to people on incapacity benefits. When the bigger problem, is low risk parochialism. So the fully fit dole clerk whose life is the antithesis of the parable of talents. All Work Test him too. Why did he cop out of education for professional work. Why did he take work in the public sector that a disabled person could do.

Get my drift Richard ?

call it the Lazy Susan philosophy. Spin the desk and the disabled claimant gets work he can do administering benefits and the dole clerk becomes unemployed being forced to look for work he can do.

Posted by: rick card at August 10, 2008 07:22 PM

I was wonderingtoo RDN whether you support the Leonard Cheshire "Enable the Disabled" philosophy. Once classified as "Enabled" they can be put on reduced benefits as fit for work. Result.

Then we can go about shaming them (or at least encouraging them to feel a sense of shame so they can develop a sense of self esteem)

But your principle should not be abandoned but rather it should be extended. Thinkers should be made to feel ashamed for having never done a useful day's work in their lives.

Fully fit admin public servants should feel shame that they stole jobs disabled people could do.

Social workers should feel shame (don't get me started on social workers RDN).

I remember when the welfare clinic and ambulance station (my mothewr was resident caretaker and father the ambulanceman) stood by in the 60s for its first visit by "Social workers". It was all very odd because people were wondering how someone could become a professional by only serving one fifth of an apprenticeship (one year training)

A male and a female of the new species arrived and walked to the clinic entrance across the ambulabce station forecourt. A prstinely policjed outside tap and polished empty milk bottles on the step would have said something to a more observant pair.

But the male snorted back footballer style and spat on the concrete.

The old fella (his occasional nasty episodes put dopwn to his RN work in the war rowing SOE agents to visit Italy and having occasional altercations with their tourist board then in residence) had one of his turns.

He rushed out to the forecxourt and enquired "Do you remember the days of TB son you better clean that up.

Social worker, wedded to the new idea that assertiveness was an alternative to abject surrender, replied "If you want it clean do it yourself"

"I will;" says the ow fella "Using your jacket, only thing is while you still in it"

Smack. And the social worker is duly horizonal and being dragged by his ankles back and forth through his offending glob.

So a report to police and Medical Officer of Health.

Police told the social worker not to spit as he had clearly slipped on his sputum and broken his nose. And MOH told the old chap he took a very dim view of it

"Am I to understand that we give you so little work you have resorted to creating your own casualties at Stowmarket ?"

Since then the country has lost it. We started taking social workers seriously. And the tories created think tanks and stuiff to tell us that. Funny world.

Posted by: rick card at August 11, 2008 07:56 AM

Maybe if seriously right wing persons knew the difference between ordinary and possessive nouns (the three R's) lower class people might start listening.

Posted by: mark mcfarland at August 18, 2008 09:33 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement