Terence Blacker: Society is workshy, not just families

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The Independent Online

The smiling, dappled, flag-waving version of Britishness we saw last weekend has not lasted. While the flags and bunting are still out there, dripping in the summer rain, a more familiar picture of our nation has emerged. The government heavy Eric Pickles has announced a plan to "deal with" 120,000 problem families. Firmly of the condemn-more-understand-less school, he believes political correctness is to blame for failing to tackle the problem: we should stop being afraid to stigmatise.

Elsewhere, another story of "broken Britain" has been told. Some of our leading shops, in co-operation with a gaming firm, have been encouraging customers buying online to gamble as they shop. If the player/shopper clicks on an item, a roulette wheel appears, offering the chance to win the item on the spin of the wheel in return for a £1 stake. Drawing supine customers into more buying or gambling, the scheme offers a tempting combination of consumerism and effortless profit. Among the firms which have been involved are Asda, Boots, B&Q, and Sainsbury's.

Gambling is not the only expression of our something-for-nothing culture but, if Mr Pickles is interested in why the underprivileged, undereducated or lazy tend to abuse the welfare system, he could do worse than to look how gambling has been promoted in the past five years – particularly to women at home and to the young.

It is there, designed like a jolly computer game, as soon as one goes online. At half-time during football matches, commercials chirpily encourage a flutter while often presenting a debased, yobbish view of the world, in which – to take a current example – foreigners are presented as moustachioed morons with ugly wives, a large number of children and a donkey in the back yard.

It is a convenient illusion to believe that there is no connection between the cheerfully selfish and amoral view of the world encouraged by the gambling industry (including the National Lottery) and the behaviour of Mr Pickles' "troubled families". By demonising the fecklessly welfare-dependent, the rest of society absolves itself.

The past is blamed: the rot set in during the 1960s or the 1980s. When those arguments wear thin, as they did during last year's riots, other reasons are found – the greed of bankers, the cynicism about politics, an exploitative press.

Why, though, if the Government, TV, the internet and large retail businesses promote the idea of making something for nothing, of sitting behind a screen and gambling, should poor families not take the same approach to the benefits system? Mr Pickles complained that those abusing the system have "got the language ... they are fluent in social work", but the truth is that they have learnt the lessons from the rulebook of contemporary capitalism.

To him, it would doubtless seem feebly liberal and maybe even politically correct, but the best way to stop problem families from lazily exploiting the system is to look at the lazy exploitation which is all around them – and us.

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