Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The Government has declared war on the welfare state

Our country is in the hands of dogmatist free-marketers who came into power when Britons felt lost
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The Independent Online

It was listening this week to Vince Cable that got me going, yanked me out of my post-election stupor. He was justifying the tripling of tuition fees in the best British universities, a brazen volte-face and he knows it. His voice was dry as the bark on a dying tree – no smoothing lubricants coated his throat or his words. And sure enough, he issued ominous warnings – there was no other choice, no honour in contesting the decisions – because we are in the middle of the worst economic crisis ever, in a national emergency, nothing less.

Most voters are subdued and submit to austerity measures docilely, nicely. But even Jesus wouldn't go this meek in the face of the hard, well-planned demolition of the post-war British welfare state.

In the 1945 election, Churchill, the war hero, lost resoundingly to Labour under Clement Attlee, who offered needs-based services and a transformative government which would cut away old privileges and rout the defeatist fatalism of ordinary people who had been given to believe there was no other way of organising an industrialised society. Does that ring a bell? Churchill warned that the social reforms would be "Gestapo-esque". Thankfully, the electorate ignored his scare tactics.

Today's government propaganda easily alarms us by hyperbolising the state we are in. It is not unlike the "war on terror", which uses Islamist terrorism to pass extreme laws that violate human rights. George Osborne has also cleverly turned his economic plans into a moral crusade. And of course New Labour has had no credible way of stopping the official cant. It has used the same tricks and dumped social democracy under the right-wing Blair, and Brown never found the courage to reclaim it. Even today, several of their key MPs either muddle along or seem to be in a trance. Can someone tell me how Douglas Alexander differs from Danny Alexander on benefits cuts, except for the ginger hair, that is?

Our country is in the hands of dogmatist free-marketers who had the good fortune to come into power at a time of financial crisis and vulnerability when Britons feel lost. The mission is ideological – to demolish the principles and structures of the welfare state, including the humane idea of a shared and caring nation, where those who can support those who can't and even the minority who won't. I have paid taxes since 1975. Some of the money has gone to the "undeserving" indigent – so what? I know about privation. During desperate times, my mum lied to get loans and sometimes "forgot" to pay back neighbours. When the classes are divided by serious inequality, you do what you have to. The poor are castigated if they envy the rich, but the rich, it seems, can now freely express and enact the politics of resentment.

The father of a young student whom I know never pays taxes because, he says, he doesn't use public services. I asked him once if he went to the British Museum, walked in Richmond Park, had a district nurse visit when his children were born, expected firefighters to come if his pile was burning. Yes, he said, the selfish bastard, but as a "job creator" those were his entitlements.

The promised pain will not affect all equally. The Cameron and Clegg children will never have to worry about the costs of university education; Cable will have plenty put aside for his old age, and Osborne will not lose sleep about how many of his homes might get repossessed. Bankers who got us into this mess get some flak, but keep their bonuses; those on benefits lose respect and most means of sustenance too. We must believe it is because they are not worth it.

Strident government ideologues pay no heed to the many dissenting voices and alternative analyses. In the economist Will Hutton's inspired new book, Them And Us, he offers a compelling vision of a fairer, just and equal country where capitalism buys into social mutuality. He says, quite rightly: "Winners can't take everything. We're social beings and there has to be co-dependency between public and private." That is very different from that doughy concept "the Big Society". Some economists point out that Britain's national debt, as a proportion of the gross domestic product, is the lowest in the G7 club of leading industrialised nations, and that the actual interest payments as a proportion of GDP on the debt were higher under Margaret Thatcher. We are, they say, different from Greece and Ireland because our debts are mostly to internal, not external creditors.

Then there is the Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, who is against cutting services so drastically and warns against deregulation and small government – the main demands of the Tea Party and right-wingers here. All major post-war collapses, he says, have come after Ronald Reagan decided that big businesses should be set free from restraints. Other key questions: when will we have the figures on how much Blair's wars have cost the nation? That should lead us to debate if we need the level of defence expenditure we have had for too long.

Most Britons should want to protect the public sector, which is not as "bloated" as is claimed, but has the staff needed to serve an ageing, overworked population with increasing mental problems, addicts, neglectful and abusive parents, homelessness and real poverty. During a recession all these problems increase. If a state decides to withdraw, we will get back to Victorian levels of deprivation and chaos. There will be more illnesses, suicides, divorces, abandoned and abused children, crime, alcohol and drug abuse. And there is the now silenced argument over redistribution. Why can't people with incomes over £100,000 be taxed more highly? They can't all flee to Monaco. Why is it blasphemous to ask that question or any of the others listed above?

The poppy should remind us of the lost soldiers of the Second World War and what came next. The national debt was astronomical but Britons courageously backed the welfare state. They are betrayed today by the new conservatives and the people's torpidity. This ideologically driven Government has had it too easy. If we are all in it together, the ruling elite cannot remodel the country and decide the future without our informed consent. We must resist them; it is a democratic duty to do so. They are good at bullying, but the Coalition is fragile. Anyone for a massive, national demonstration?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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