“Idleness is the mother and root of all vices”, according to that 16th Century Ian Duncan Smith forerunner, Henry VIII.
Stigma against the able-bodied unemployed, or the “sturdy beggar”, has a longer pedigree than might be imagined.
The years following the decimating outbreaks of the Black Death in Britain during the 1300s were really something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, people had to contend with the fact that between a third and a half of all those they had ever knew and loved; friends, lovers and family, had perished. On the other hand, swathes of land had now been freed up for the hard scrabble peasants. They had survived the biggest natural disaster the world has ever known, their share of inheritance had almost doubled overnight, plus the weather was good for once.
This ‘Spirit of 1350’ atmosphere did not go unnoticed. As wages for labourers rose in line with demand, landowners, faced with the prospect of paying more or letting their land lie fallow, pressured King Edward III to enact the first medieval poor law. Wrenching control of their labour away from them, it required that all peasants who could work did so, with wages set at pre-plague levels.
That the precursor of the modern welfare state came about, not as a response to supporting those in need during a downturn, but curtailing the wages of the poor during an economic boom is worth bearing in mind.
The framing of the poor as snobby elitists is a hallmark of the current government. Cait Reilly, the woman who turned down unpaid labour while on Workfare was forced to protest: “I don’t think I’m above Poundland” to the Telegraph. As if a desire to avoid the unwashed masses barrelling in on dole day was her prime motivation. Headlines in The Sun never failed to mention that she was a ‘university graduate’. Meanwhile, on the exhaust vent that is Twitter, Alexandra Swann, a Tory defector to UKIP, blasted: “Dear Cait Reilly, you are paid to work via benefits, shelter etc. Now sod off.”
If Cait’s elitism is criticised, how then to describe the message implicit in UKIP’s plans to stop benefit claimants from buying cigarettes, alcohol and satellite TV subscriptions? The idea that, as an economic imperative, millions must be spent on an electronic spending card to stop people getting their hands on a bit of quality telly, is quite simply insane (not to mention ironic, given Rupert Murdoch’s praise for UKIP).
This same flipping of the narrative on elitism can be seen in the conservative movement’s schizoid approach to immigration. A plague of immigrants await, ready to take the jobs Brits feel they are too good to do. They are the shining example, who must be deported. With the issue of immigration, two strands converge. Just who is getting above their station more? Foreigners who think they are entitled to the first world standards of health, education and services that our tax money provides, or working class British who think they are too good to occupy the lower rungs of the workplace that society traditionally allotted them.
This obsession with ‘uppityness’ is typified by David Cameron’s comments of support for George Osborne on the Philpott case, the benefit claimant who killed his six children in a house fire.
“Mr Philpott was the one to blame for his crimes and should be held responsible…but what the chancellor went on to say is that we should ask some wider questions about our welfare system, how much it costs and the signals it sends.”
Does David Cameron mean to imply that the very existence of a welfare state sends a message? If so, about what and to whom? Cameron does not elaborate. He goes on to reference welfare as a support for people “who work hard” and who do not use it as a “life choice”. While avoiding specifics, he imbues the idea of welfare with an aura of entitlement. The words “life choice”, as soft as mink, and with all the luxury it implies. Welfare is only for the most discerning of consumers.
Rather than address the economic realities behind the fact that 2.5 million British people are out of work, the government instead chooses to create a false moral panic about a modern day narcissism among the poor. Except this panic is really not that modern at all. Maybe we need to all get in touch with our inner welfare kings and queens, discover our entitlement, and make like Charles II and boot this government out of power.