Nicholas Lezard: There’s dignity in not working, too

When officials start calling on the jobless at home, an ugly spirit is abroad

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So the Government has decided that it would be a good idea to get advisers to visit the long-term unemployed and tell them how to find jobs. Nothing too bad about that, I thought, and it’s nice of them to make the effort to go to people’s homes for a chat. But then I remembered that more than mere sympathy and the desire to lend a sympathetic ear might be at work.

There is an ugly spirit abroad, whose clearest expression came last week in an open letter from the German publication Bild to the people of Greece, in which it was suggested that the route out of their economic morass lay in getting out of bed earlier.

I have heard few more offensive suggestions in my life. After a certain age, people tend to work out whether or not they are the sort who like to get up early, and I have always thought, in the spirit of doing as you would be done by, that you shouldn’t rouse someone who is asleep unless they have a train to catch.

One of the most endearing and convincing reasons why we should wish peace upon the prophet Mohammed is that he is said to have cut off the part of his cloak upon which a cat had fallen asleep, and the principle should also apply to humans. In other words: among the long-term unemployed, there are going to be a proportion of people who like it like that.

One suspects that this government is as much of a fan of that kind of attitude as was Thatcher’s. Lenin railed against Oblomovism, that tendency towards pleasant lethargy epitomised by the splendidly idle hero of Goncharov’s great novel; perhaps a little more tolerance in his character would have softened some of the harsher edges of the system he created.

Some will raise the question of the dignity of labour and the right to work. In his 1932 essay, In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell wrote: “Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.” Put like that, the whole concept of the dignity of labour is undermined.

So let these government inspectors find out first whether the people they are visiting want to have some job, any job, however rotten or degrading, or whether they want to mooch around all day. They may go so far as to suggest a reading list, or some hobby with which to cultivate themselves or relieve the occasional period of tedium; but no more than that. I have no problem with funding through taxation both the deliberately idle and the frustrated job-seeker, in the same way that the NHS should be free to those who both can, and cannot, afford private healthcare.

But I suspect that my suggestion will be anathema to the wowsers and bean-counters who run the world these days. (It is no accident, I think, that Greeks have a higher life expectancy than do we.) We can, though, make a stand. To do otherwise is to succumb to what Russell called “the morality of the Slave State”.

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