Hilary Wainwright introduces the first in a series of mythbusters produced by Class, in collaboration with Red Pepper. Download the guide from the Class website.
We are facing government policies of such inhumanity that if they are allowed to be carried through, we will look back in years to come with deep horror and shame. From the attacks on disability benefits to the bedroom tax, these measures return us to the kind of society where poverty was blamed on the poor and gross inequality was accepted as an economic inevitability.
Britain once had a welfare system to be proud of (for all its shortcomings) and it did not come easily. Our welfare state was born from centuries of struggle, culminating in a postwar deal to appease the millions who, through the war, had come to realise their own worth and capacities.
The children of this generation of heroes pushed in the 1960s and 70s for the full realisation of these post-war aspirations; for democracy in the workplace, the family, the universities and indeed every sphere of life.
But at the same time, an increasing section of the ruling class, championed by Margaret Thatcher, broke with the post-war compromise.
Thatcher and her coterie were determined to destroy the welfare state. At that time they did not quite succeed, but they began the process and they forged the ideological weapons. New Labour refined them to further weaken the defences of the social security state. Now the Conservatives, aided by the abject Liberal Democrats, have turned the crisis of the financial markets into a crisis of public spending. They have used this as an excuse to systematically shatter what remains of the welfare state – in other words to finish the destruction begun by Margaret Thatcher.
So how, not even 70 years on from 1945, are they getting away with it? Why are they so rarely challenged when they say that taxing the richest is impossible, but cutting the living standards of the poorest is just being realistic?
This is the importance of the ‘myth’. Milton in his great defence of free speech and a free press urged the importance of debate and argument declaring that 'argument is knowledge in the making'. By contrast, deference to power, or at least to office and the trappings of power, leads to the making of myths.
The crushing of protest in the parties that founded the welfare state, the marginalising of anyone who argues, has over the past thirty years or so created a stagnant political culture in which myths can thrive like algae, poisoning the surrounding environment.
Those in power can spew out, almost unchallenged, a constant polluting flow of misinformation about the deficit being caused by runaway welfare spending – the most brazen lie that the public becomes inured to through repetition. This allows the government to plead economic necessity for rolling back the welfare state, a project that in reality it has been just waiting to complete.
It is often said that you can judge a society on how it treats its weakest member, and in that respect the current government have blood on their hands.
What kind of society is it that allows a million young people to struggle on the dole, squandering their potential and their creativity, instead of spending the money on putting them into meaningful work – and then blames them for the increase in the benefits budget?
What kind of society is it where bankers take home telephone-number bonuses and live in 20-bedroom mansions while people living in poverty with spare bedrooms are told they need to pay more or move to smaller homes?
What kind of society is it where disabled people are called in for crude, tick-box tests to prove that they’re ‘really’ disabled, then found fit for work only to die a few months later?
We urgently need to overturn this by forcefully challenging the myths that poison any attempts at progressive change today.
We have already seen, with Occupy and UK Uncut, some of the ways that this can be done – how the stagnant water can be stirred up and the algae removed. The importance of these new kinds of political initiative is that not only were they shouting clearly 'No' but also through their practice they have been creating democratic alternatives to this ruthless assault – platforms outside our closed political system.
Exposing the Myths of Welfare is produced in the spirit of Milton's call to promote argument and debate to arrive at truth. It reasserts the principle of social security as a universal right. It exposes the tall tales used to disguise the ideological dogma of government attempts to replace our welfare state with US-style residual ‘relief’ for the poor.
Please use it to remove the poison and create a political environment in which alternatives can be nourished and a renewed welfare state created of which we can once again be proud.