As this Government becomes more unpopular, there’s one way it tries to seem in touch with the people, which is to get angry about people on benefits. Its studies show this goes down well, so we’ll soon see Grant Shapps, above, on Newsnight saying: “My mate works down the Town Hall and he says nowadays these unemployed turn up with a list from John Lewis, and by law the council has to give it them. One bloke got a snooker table made out of Waterford Crystal. Another got Beyoncé to sing his fish to sleep, straight up. Paid for by you and me.”
Presumably, it’s this thinking that led to the phrase “families with the blinds down”. Grant Shapps, George Osborne and other ministers have described people on benefits like this, which is designed to make the Cabinet seem like ordinary folk fed up of welfare cheats.
But they don’t live in streets like that, they’ve just been told it’s a phrase other people use. If everyone in a focus group told Osborne that “the ones who make me sick are these people on the social with a giraffe in the kitchen”, he’d be banging his fist at the Tory Conference going: “No longer must hard working families have to put with people on the social with a giraffe in the kitchen.”
The idea they’re trying to get across is that unemployment is caused by the unemployed not wanting to work. Maybe this is true. In which case, in the 1920s everyone was full of beans, but in around 1931 three million people decided they couldn’t be bothered for a few years, though they perked up again around 1938 which was handy as it was just in time for the war – although, during the blackout, Osborne would have had the entire country evicted for having the blinds down all the time.
It’s a theory that might be difficult to explain to the people of Corby, where I’ve been this week. It’s a baffling town, as it’s in Northamptonshire but most people have a throaty Scottish accent. In the 1930s, a steelworks opened there, and 10,000 Scots left their homes to work there, many of them walking all the way. Then, in 1980, Margaret Thatcher decided the place should be shut, and 14,000 people were suddenly unemployed. Or maybe this was coincidence, and 14,000 people decided they couldn’t be bothered to get up any more, which makes sense as this was around the time duvets and morning television started.
Recently, Corby has recovered, but if you mention when the steelworks closed you get a forlorn gaze, as no one likes to talk about it, the way few people liked to recall fighting in the Somme. But they must all be wrong, because we’re all envious of the unemployed’s idyllic existence of Noel Edmonds, Cash in the Attic and perpetual darkness.
Mark Steel’s ‘In Town’ returns today on Radio 4 at 6.30pm