Lord Skidelsky, chair of the foundation, economist and Conservative peer, stirred the cauldron first with the theme of his book calling for an end to social security, a huge tax cut, privatising education and the NHS. Bang! The welfare state gone in a puff of smoke.
Assembled was an eminent mixture of people who had no truck with this cult - top civil servants, policy makers, movers and shakers from the Treasury, DSS and the Audit Commission. But all the old clansmen were there too - the ghosts of policies past, such as Sir Alfred Sherman.
A few weeks ago all this would have been ominous, but now it was almost entertaining. They thought the unthinkable all right and it was indeed, well, unthinkable. Whatever Frank Field has been sent away to think, he made it plain in his own short presentation that this is not the way his mind is working. Why these people always thought he was one of them is a mystery. He is a christian, they are cannibals.
Skidelsky begins with the convenient assumption that we cannot afford the welfare state. He quotes Tony Blair, who of course, said nothing of the sort. What Blair actually said was, "We have reached the limit of the public's willingness to spend on an unreformed [my italics] welfare system." Well, there are few people who doubt that it must be reformed, but the far right prefers to believe it cannot be afforded at all. "High tax weakens entrepreneurialism and welfare weakens the resolve to work." That is Skidelsky's real beef: affordability is just a red herring. Of course a country twice as rich as it was in 1945 can afford it, so long as it is prudently run.
The far right are a strange bunch. First there was Myron Magnet, a famed US anti-welfare guru who sports bushy mutton-chop whiskers and speaks like Elmer Gantry, all parables and slogans, few statistics: the middle classes of the Sixties are to blame for everything - "personal sexual fulfillment" (yuk) and the "rebellious imperatives of the self" (disgraceful) percolated down to the poor who lost all shame in taking welfare. Roger Scruton said poverty is a good thing as the poor remind us of our social duties. Others said visible poverty teaches the consequences of improvidence. Skidelsky mused that in mediaeval times great sanctity was attached to poverty. Someone else advocated free rice, beans and powdered milk in buckets in the street - but nothing else; while another ideologue quoted Tacitus who said giving away free corn caused the fall of the Roman empire.
Then came the Prince of Darkness himself, Charles Murray, who believes poverty is genetic. Illegitimacy is the real problem, he says, whether or not the mother is working and supporting her family. He didn't really explain why a man - any man - is the answer, but he wants no benefits for single mothers. "We will have to hurt them," he says, licking his Dracula lips. "They must know that disaster awaits." They must suffer a lot, yes indeed and publicly. Murray is not a man for tough love but tough hate.
Now into this seething morass steps Frank Field for his first ministerial appearance. He had no announcement, but we listened to the timbre of his language and his words fell as soothing balm on ears scorched by previous speakers. He does not blame the poor for their plight. Quietly, he talked of the one third of manufacturing jobs for unskilled young men that had vanished since 1979, leaving whole communities with no means of support. "Understanding rather than condemnation" was required. He wants welfare to become once again an engine for social advance and betterment. Bad education was the recruiting sergeant for welfare dependency, and low- achieving girls needed "a hand-up, not a put-down" to prevent them becoming mothers too young.
Now we do not know quite what he means yet. But one thing is certain, he does not belong in this tribe. The old left branded him as a right- winger when he first said out loud that the system offers all the wrong incentives and is riddled with fraud. But anyone who ever comes in contact with the lives of the unemployed knows that to be true. We do not need staring-eyed right-wing fanatics to tell us that.
The system traps those it is supposed to help. It is too difficult for claimants to move in and out of temporary work and too easy to sink into lethargy and do nothing. It is too easy for the young to slide into a marginal non-working alternative life on the dole. It is almost impossible for single mothers to work without after-school schemes for their children. It is frighteningly easy for small time or professional fraudsters to swindle on a massive scale.
We do indeed need fresh thinking. The current Project Work pilot schemes have already shown how intensively supervised job searching, backed with compulsory work, gets up to 40 per cent of claimants off the books. Labour has a better scheme, with real paid work and better training, but the effect will be the same. Workfare will be mostly carrot, with a bit of stick for the under 25s and the long-term unemployed - and the signs are it will work.
Once the taxi-driver vote is convinced that fraud and idleness have been squeezed out of the system, then, as Field said, there should be greater public support for social security. For there will always remain a large number of people who cannot work - sick, old, mentally incapable, unemployable or living in the Barrows and the Jarrows where no work is to be had.
But it will not be as easy as Labour's election slogans made it sound. A brilliant speech by Two Brains David Willetts, former minister and social security aficionado, explained just how difficult reform will be. He pointed out that trying to make a smooth staircase out of benefit into work is fraught with problems: you iron out the steepest steps, only to re-create them further up or lower down the chain. Making family credit more generous to get more people on to it creates it own traps and linking the tax and benefits system will not solve that dilemma. All the same, his "Nothing can be done" message was another reminder that even the best brains in government need time off for replenishing from time to time.
Well, now we shall see if the two brains of Harman and Field can prove him wrong. One thing is certain, whatever "unthinkable" they come up with, it will not inhabit the same intellectual universe as Lord Skidelsky and the US anti-welfarists.Reuse content