Not since the 1980s have our leaders so cruelly bullied the poor

The new Archbishop should beware the IDS of March – or he may come to regret it

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If only Cristina de Kirchner of Argentina had the wit to ignore the islanders’ plebiscite and take the Falklands by force, we could really start to party like it’s 1982.

The sense of déjà vu is quite strong enough as it is, with a deeply disliked Tory-led administration increasingly riven by internecine scraps; an unpopular Prime Minister insisting there is no alternative; and now the Christian soldiers of Anglicanism marching as to war with a cruel and callous Government. Lob an insanely archaic South Atlantic conflict into the pot, and the back-to-the-future stink would make you gag.

In fact, it already does. History is repeating itself before our eyes, though not as farce.  What was tragic when Mrs Thatcher waggled her scythe is shaping into tragedy again as David Cameron aloofly presides over a systematic campaign to stigmatise the poor as an innately inferior sub-species. He does so as less its instigator than its enabler. Unlike Thatcher, he is not a leader. A jellyfish swept along by the currents carrying him remorselessly to the right, he no longer pays even lip service to whatever ill-formed Utopian daydream constituted his Big Society.

Whether his lack of Thatcher’s doctrinal zeal mitigates the mortal sin he is committing against this country in the eyes of God is beyond my pay grade. Such questions are best left to theologians, and as the Cardinals gathered in the Vatican for their play date with differently coloured smoke, the Anglican bishops right revved themselves into action. Forty-three signed a letter criticising Iain Duncan Smith’s assault on benefits, and specifically the Bill to cap annual increases to a sub-inflationary 1 per cent that will maroon an estimated extra 200,000 children in poverty.

Not content with signing the epistle, their new guv’nor, Justin Welby, offered a few solo thoughts. A civilised society  has a duty to support the vulnerable, blogged the Archbishop of Canterbury, which “in hard times... should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish”. But any hopes that Welby would show the stoicism under Tory fire of Robert Runcie in the 1980s diminished, if not disappeared, with depressing speed. His Grace has since mysteriously come to know that the Work and Pensions Secretary is “brave” for overhauling a system he knows, from his own experience of claiming benefits, to be “shot full of holes, wrong incentives and incredible complexity”.

What explains the Damascene conversion is unclear. Perhaps IDS, an observant Catholic, rang him for a cosy inter-denominational chat. Or maybe Welby, yet to be enthroned and short of confidence, was spooked by the “meddlesome leftie clerics” headlines and swipes from the more muscular end of the neo-Thatcherite spectrum. If so, I urge him to study the enemy – and, having done so, to confirm his faith in the possibility of regeneration, soon to be celebrated at Easter, by growing a new and bigger pair beneath his nightie. His job is not to raise the white flag at the first gunfire. His mission is to fight the good fight on behalf of the vulnerable  in the fervent belief that in this case, as his studies of Christ’s teachings must inform him, mitre is right.

One of those enemies is a certain Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley and the bookies’ mate in the Commons. The recipient of generous benefits himself from that industry, Mr Davies is a member of the All Party Betting and Gaming Committee which is oddly relaxed about the intensely addictive gaming machines that have mushroomed in recent years to boost the stores of human misery.

If you have strolled through a deprived urban area lately and wondered why so many failed retail outlets have reopened as a Ladbrokes or Paddy Power, this is why. These casino-simulating machines increase the firms’ profits, without any need for more staff. Since there is a limit of four per shop, they simply open more and more shops. It was a disgrace that Labour allowed them in the boom times, and a deeper disgrace that the Coalition permits the explosion of their numbers now. The Treasury rakes in some £300m a year from the primarily poor people who get hooked. Can you think of a wickeder regressive tax?

I mention this scandal, which I mean to revisit in depth, to highlight both the quality of Welby’s detractors and the blithe unconcern for the poor that is coming to define the senior Coalition partner. Aside from the unutterable persecution of the disabled and the clinical plan to displace those on housing benefits, the slashing of the legal aid budget is monstrously timed to deny those who need to challenge the decisions that will devastate their lives any chance to do so.

Not since the 1980s has a government actively bullied the poor, striving to create discord between those whose disposable incomes have shrunk and those who can barely feed their children. Few days pass without an article about alleged scroungers, presumably leaked by IDS’ henchfolk, in a right-wing tabloid. This demonisation of the needy – the propagation of the poisonous myth that poverty somehow reduces their stake in this country – is not just a moral obscenity. It is juggernaut social engineering that will leave a great deal of roadkill and, as with Thatcher’s destruction of the industrial north, a terrible reckoning to pay.

Duncan Smith’s “Universal Credit”, already beset by technical problems, will create immense hardship when it is finally introduced, and this will be no accident. Lacerating welfare is not an expedient device to cut the deficit  or coerce the terminally indolent to find imaginary jobs. It is an ideological crusade designed to weaken, and eventually destroy, the belief in the need for a benefits system that allows those forced to rely on it their dignity and a fraction of the comforts the luckier among us enjoy.

However delightful he found Duncan Smith, assuming they had that telephonic pow-wow, Justin Welby needs to understand this before the entrances of betting shops packed from 8am-10pm with poor people addicted to roulette machines become nocturnal homes to sleeping bags. This Government, or the faction within it visibly seizing control, viscerally hates what its Victorian sensibilities identify as the undeserving poor. If he is too callow publicly to beware the IDS of March, the Archbishop will regret this in April, May or June, and for the rest of his tenure. Whatever the month, he and anyone else addicted to the civilised society of which he wrote should be shivering in fear at the march of IDS.

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