For a few months in 2010, I was tempted to give David Cameron the benefit of the doubt. My cynicism and suspicion that his credentials as a reformer, moderniser and de-toxifier of the Tory brand were simply a smokescreen for a more sinister brand of Conservativism were actively challenged by a reasonable performance during the first period of coalition government. He appeared to have some genuinely liberal inclinations, looked willing to distance himself from the right-wing of his party (a bane of previous Conservative leaderships) and gave indications of a commitment to pluralism.
However, in recent months Cameron appears to have parted company not only with these qualities but also his sense of reason and proportion. As he becomes notably more intemperate, as evidenced in some of his parliamentary exchanges with Ed Miliband and Dennis Skinner, the transformation from the reasonable, amicable and tolerant champion of political diversity into sub-Thatcherite tribalist becomes more obvious. If indeed transformation it is; perhaps my cynicism was not so misplaced after all.
While Cameron has made some foolish comments recently unfitting of his office, today’s revelations are more serious. If it is true that the Prime Minister is set to announce that Housing Benefit would be scrapped for under-25s, the plans amount to the stupidest thing a British Prime Minister has done since Anthony Eden decided that a unilateral military adventure in Egypt would provide the most effective solution to securing Britain’s economic prosperity.
Today’s newspapers are all in agreement of key facts: that David Cameron is to give a speech tomorrow in which he will set out proposals (presumably only to be implemented in the event of a Conservative majority administration) to scrap housing benefit to under-25s, that the principal objective of such a move is a financial one (to save at least £10billion) and that the plans are based on the idea that under-25s should simply “stay with Mum or Dad” rather than live independently.
This logic is so misplaced that it would be laughable if not so serious. Firstly, what is being proposed is an institutional discrimination based on a person’s age. The proposals would be objectionable for that reason alone. But even the economic reasoning is far from sound, as the likely human costs include increased homelessness, a rise in crime, wider incidence of mental ill-health and suicide, the creation of a new underclass - one that is socially immobile and isolated, with zero prospects or life opportunities. What the plans would do in practice is to create a maze of social problems and human misery coupled with a perpetuation of poverty and a reinforcement of inequality, all of which carries an additional financial as well as a societal cost.
It would represent a completely false economy to scrap housing benefit to under-25s as any savings would be marginal compared to the increased costs necessitated by addressing the problems associated with further social breakdown. It is more than ironic that the architect of the phrase “Broken Britain” is advocating policies that will lead to devastating social fragmentation and thousands trapped in poverty with no means of escape. I’ve become quite accustomed to the Tories’ relentless bashing of the poor and their insistence on making moral judgements between the deserving and undeserving. But going as far as making such a distinction purely on the basis of age is both arbitrary and discriminatory, as well as utterly stupid.
Let’s take the premise that all under-25s should live with their parents at face value, shall we? If we accept this, we must accept a view of the world that only exists in the imaginations of middle England arch-Tories, with the respectable nuclear family with 2.3 children as the norm. A world in which young people (like myself, who left a remote island community to live independently in Glasgow) do not have to leave home to find (often low-paid) employment. A world in which it is always practical for young people who have left home to return; a world in which relationships between parents and children are always harmonious; a world in which having large families living under one roof is both practical and welcome.
I was appalled in the late 1990s when Glasgow City Council adopted a policy of not housing males under the age of 25 in anything but hostel accommodation – a discrimination based on age and gender and one which led to such men being “dumped”, ignored and forgotten about, their lives criminally left to wind towards homelessness and its inevitable by-products of poverty and personal vulnerability. I fail to see how Cameron’s idea is any more progressive, or any less likely to result in a core group of people being abandoned to poverty and hopelessness.
In 1996, I was 19 years old and working part-time in Glasgow. I received some housing benefit due to my low income. “Home” was over 100 miles away. If these plans had been in place then, I would have been obligated to give up my employment and the future opportunities it provided. I am sure there are several other young people today in similar circumstances, who simply cannot be expected to return home and whose life chances would be compromised if they did.
This notion is so ridiculous and out of touch with social reality that the Prime Minister looks quite idiotic. For a host of reasons a policy that effectively forces people to give up an independent life and live with parents who may or may not be able to accommodate them is impractical and doomed to failure. There will also be unintended secondary effects such as the social problems already mentioned, a likely loss of income for private landlords and a stagnant economy.
What is actually needed from the Prime Minister is not an outburst suggesting an intolerance towards the lower classes but a coherent strategy for job creation. It is only through creating new employment opportunities that the government will be able to tackle the rising cost of welfare. Depriving people of their independence for the arbitrary offences of being under 25 years old and in receipt of housing benefit is not going to help grow the economy. The most effective method of simultaneously reducing welfare spending and investing in economic growth is through supporting people into jobs and ensuring that such jobs pay the kind of wages that aren’t so low as to trap individuals and their families into benefit dependency.
If the Conservatives are serious about addressing the admittedly high levels of housing benefit being claimed, they would be well advised to consider also the extent to which artificially inflated house prices have had an effect on private rents – especially in areas such as London. As they stand Cameron’s plans will take no account of an individual’s needs or circumstances, simply their age. The insistence that there will be exemptions for “special cases” such as victims of domestic violence is hardly reassuring and is suggestive of an intellectual sloth on the part of the Conservatives’ policy makers.
In fact, if domestic violence is of such concern to the Prime Minister, why does he insist on forcing families that may have lived apart for some time back under one roof? Might that not lead to inflammatory situations or domestic violence?
For the leader of a government supposedly committed to social mobility to make this type of statement is quite hypocritical. What it also does, other than allow us to see the reality of Cameron’s confused mindset, is to demonstrate the problems facing the Conservative party at present. The party seems unable to formulate any creative ideas to reduce the structural deficit or government spending that do not involve welfare cuts. Neither do the Conservatives possess the insights or the vision to stimulate Britain’s economy. But most telling is the party’s struggle with itself.
Cameron’s announcement is part of a deliberate “differentiation strategy”. He’s beginning to feel pressure from both the electorate and the right-wing of his own party and, like most Conservative Prime Ministers, prioritises the concerns of the latter. So concerned is the party leadership that they’re losing their distinctiveness in coalition that they’re prepared to say almost anything, irrespective of how devoid of reason it might be, that sets them apart from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. There is an internal battle for the soul of the Conservative Party and the captain seems to have abandoned any hopes of steering the ship on a straight course. He seems more concerned about keeping even the most unsavoury crew members on board, even if that means his passengers are deserting.
From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. But the beliefs and values of an individual or a party are inherent in their actions. From the actions of the Conservative party in recent weeks, it’s safe to deduce that it stands for little other than social inequality and attacks on the underprivileged. It’s not even a case of “same old Tories” but a newer, more ideologically confused party that lacks the pragmatic attitudes towards welfare that even Thatcher was prepared to tolerate.
I have been disappointed by the Liberal Democrat response so far. Danny Alexander, according to the Guardian, has “distanced himself” but “stopped short of denouncing them”. I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t good enough. I understand the principle of collective responsibility, but that only applies to the actions of a government attempting to implement a coalition agreement. It does not apply to a maverick Prime Minister making statements on behalf of his party with the express intention of distancing himself from his coalition partners. The Independent quotes a “Lib Dem source”, indicating that the party is "incredibly relaxed" about Mr Cameron's intervention. I can appreciate that having the Prime Minister “differentiate” himself in this way is to the Liberal Democrats’ advantage, but there needs to be a direct challenge from senior figures within the party.
The Conservatives cannot escape their well-deserved reputation as the nasty party. It seems they don’t want to. Such nastiness however is becoming increasingly evident in policy pronouncements and Liberal Democrats cannot afford to stand idly by while a confused Prime Minister attacks the most vulnerable in society. Either we exist to “safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community” – in which case we should publicly oppose this idiocy – or we don’t, in which case there is no need for the Liberal Democrats.
David Cameron’s misjudged proposals would undermine communities, entrench poverty and compromise life chances of already vulnerable people. If Nick Clegg passionately believes in the need to facilitate social mobility, I suggest that he has a word with Mr Cameron to explain that policies designed to limit economic mobility are likely to have negative impact on the social mobility and personal aspiration the government is so keen to encourage.
I suspect there will be much written on this subject in the next few days, much of it by academics and people with a working knowledge of social deprivation and the realities facing those who claim benefits. I look forward to reading their insights. What is already obvious though is that the Prime Minister looks desperate and rather stupid, while Iain Duncan Smith’s aims to restore credibility in the Conservatives through a more compassionate approach towards society’s poorest now lie in tatters.