Terence Blacker: Our society is lazy and workshy, not just some families

The Way We Live: Those abusing the system have learned their lessons from the rulebook of contemporary capitalism

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The smiling, dappled, flag-waving version of Britishness we saw last weekend has not lasted long. 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 across the land. Firmly of the condemn-more-understand-less school of conservatism, the Communities Secretary believes political correctness is to blame for past failures 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 on-line 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 under-privileged, under-educated 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 one 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's "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? In his interview in The Independent on Sunday, 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 learned the lessons from the rulebook of contemporary capitalism.

The Pickles scheme has the whiff of political gimmick to it. Local councils must provide 60 per cent of the funding to pay for troubleshooters, while the money from central government is not new, but taken from other departments. The maths is neat – 120,000 families costing the national budget £9bn a year – but unexplained.

When under pressure, the Tories like to throw a bit of red meat to the party faithful and there is no more tempting morsel than "welfare scroungers". Traditionally, these assaults on anti-social elements are spearheaded by the Government's resident man of the people. In past administrations, the role has been played by Sir Rhodes Boyson and Norman Tebbitt. Eric Pickles – sometimes a grown-up Billy Bunter, more often a sinister, wheezing James Bond villain – plays the role to perfection.

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.

Help the aged? Not with this

Those suffering from compassion fatigue will probably not have dwelt for too long over the news that the country's senior citizens are increasingly feeling anxious about their body image. According to a report by Professor Nicola Rumsey, of the University of the West of England, people in their eighties are still likely to fret about the effects of the ageing process reflected pitilessly back at them every time they look in the mirror. We are experiencing "an epidemic of self-consciousness", says Dr Alex Yellowlees, a consultant psychiatrist from the Glasgow Priory Clinic. "A collective body dissatisfaction... is a contagion in our society."

Here, then, is yet another crisis for us all to worry about: grandmas and grandpas worrying that they're not as cute and pert as they once were. Some acquire eating disorders; others are more concerned about the way they look than they are about controlling pain. Until recently, there was a simpler description for this disorder among silly old fools. It was called "vanity".

terblacker@aol.com

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