Toryism and the spirit of Alfred Doolittle

At least the Victorian poor had the workhouse. What safety net will IDS offer those nobody feels much like helping?

"What is middle-class morality?" asked Alfred P Doolittle in G B Shaw's Pygmalion. "Just an excuse for never giving me anything."

Doolittle was Shaw's embodiment of "the undeserving poor", the feckless underclass snapping at the heels of upstanding Englishmen. His defence of the undeserving man is one of the great set-pieces of social satire. "My needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband," argued Doolittle. "I don't need less than a deserving man; I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more."

Now, almost a century after the publication of Pygmalion, the spirit of Doolittle has risen to haunt us. According to a poll commissioned by Tory think tank the Centre for Social Justice, 71 per cent of people think that "the welfare state has become too inefficient, with too many undeserving people getting too much".

Still, cometh the hour, cometh the man. Iain Duncan Smith, founder of the CSJ and fearless champion of middle-class morality, plans to cut the Gordian knot of benefits abuse by drawing a line under the whole notion of a welfare state. "Reform of the welfare state is popular," he conceded this week, "but people don't want government to turn its back to the needy without putting an alternative in its place. There is an alternative - the welfare society - in which money and support is given to a local charity or directly to people in need.

"The welfare state," he went on, "has crowded out much of the room for such giving." Unmolested by Big Brother, IDS insists, people would give freely to deserving causes out of their own pocket. The CSJ's findings appear to lend weight to Iain's Big Idea. When 2,000 voters in its YouGov poll were asked what they would do if they had £200 to give to a good cause, 31 per cent said they would give it directly to a person or family in need; a similar proportion chose a local charity or church and another 14 per cent said the money should go to a national charity, a Third World charity or a local authority. Not one of the respondents supported the idea that the money should go to central government to be spent on fighting poverty. "People," thundered the newly masterful IDS, "are turning their backs on big government."

Laying aside the ungenerous thought that this assertion might have something to do with the fact that big government has rather pointedly turned its back on IDS, the survey findings are hardly surprising. The disposition of hypothetical funds is an endlessly entertaining game - we all spend hours deciding which good cause would benefit if we won the lottery - but politically it is worse than useless, on a par with the self-deceiving scam that this year, actually, instead of giving Christmas presents, we're sending the money to charity. The idea that voluntary alms-giving can replace a centralised welfare system is at best disingenuous and at worst a calculated withdrawal from social responsibility, an excuse, as Shaw pointed out, for giving nothing.

Nor - and I'm sorry to take the wind out of IDS's sails - is it a new idea.

Private philanthropy was the (distinctly shaky) mainstay of Victorian society. In 1869, the Unitarian minister Henry Solly set up the Charity Organisation Society, a body of concerned citizens which distributed aid to the indigent on a strictly ad hominem basis. To weed out the deserving from the undeserving poor, gently bred ladies would conduct home visits to the poor of the parish, dispensing calves' foot jelly and bracing advice in equal measure. Pensions might then be awarded on these ladies' recommendations. The records of this well-intentioned organisation, which in many ways paved the way for modern social services, make chilling reading. Charity workers are warned of the difficulty of "obtaining the evidence of uneducated people". The poor, it seemed, laboured under the misapprehension that money would help them. In its guidelines for useful distribution of aid, the society presents the hypothetical case of a woman who, left without means when her husband is removed, through infirmity, to the poor house, fails to see that "the only result of a gift would be to destroy her power of self-help".

Sounds familiar? It's that old compassionate Toryism again. But is this really any way forward for a modern society? It's been bad enough for the poorer members of society having politicians such as Olga Maitland and Michael Portillo descend on their homes to tell them how to make a cheap and tasty stew out of chicken livers and ciabatta; will they now have to put up with well-meaning Tory ladies bearing down, like Hyacinth Bucket, to quiz them on their deservingness? And what will be their criteria? Will a copy of the Daily Mail, prominently displayed, be sufficient proof of good character? Will applicants for aid be screened for pro-European tendencies?

The notion is absurd, but the premise holds. Private philanthropy depends on private whim. At the time of the Irish famine, certain Catholic families were offered a daily dole of soup, with the proviso that they "turned" Protestant. Is such an abuse of aid impossible in our own society? You have to hope so.

At least the Victorian poor, denied aid for the good of their souls, had the workhouse to fall back on. What safety net will Iain Duncan Smith and his welfare society offer to those whom nobody, for whatever reason, feels much like helping? And what, in this deregulated system, of their dependants? To paraphrase Alfred Doolittle, the children of an undeserving man do not eat less than the children of a deserving man. If an individual offends the alms-givers with his antisocial habits, must his children reap the consequences?

It's all a bit too Old Testament for my liking. IDS, in his new Moses mode, appears to believe that being poor is a sign of moral degeneracy. "Crime, drug addiction, family breakdown and school failure are today's major causes of poverty," he roars. Can he seriously be thinking of setting this particular cart before the horse? It seems to me that these social ills - the four horsemen of The Conservative Apocalypse - are at least as likely to be the consequences as the causes of poverty.

The findings of the Centre for Social Justice poll are fuelled by the very British terror of seeing someone else get something for nothing; it's the same impulse that has the middle classes clucking and tutting over the fact that a family on benefits should own a television. Shakespeare took the kinder view when he accepted that "a beggar is in the poorest thing superfluous" but try telling that to a frothing middle Englander concerned that his taxes are going on "wasters". Even the most demonstrably deserving poor are looked at askance if they are given a university place in preference to their fully paid up, privately educated counterparts.

Anyone can see that the welfare state, as it stands, is far from perfect. The yawning holes in IDS's new plan should not deflect attention from the holes in Blair's 1997 Social Exclusion Act. But it would be nice, for once, to discuss the welfare state without dragging the "deserving poor" into the argument. I look forward to the day when someone commissions a poll on what to do with the undeserving rich. But I won't be holding my breath.

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