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The Binary Trap

Author: Alain Catzeflis

The appointment of Esther McVey as Secretary of State at the Department of Works and pensions has provoked a furious public backlash. At the time of writing a petition to reverse her appointment was inching towards 25,000 signatures.

McVey is an ambitious and (some would say) over-confident supporter of austerity and of swingeing cuts to benefits as a way of balancing the books. The former TV presenter once claimed benefits sanctions "teach" job seekers to look for work seriously. She thinks food banks are a good thing and she wants to be Prime Minister.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has called her appointment ‘alarming’. But Corbyn has also condemned the vicious personal attacks on McVey on social media. Which brings me to the point of this blog.

Political discourse, which ultimately determines policy that affects millions of vulnerable citizens – people with disabilities, the elderly and the poor – is becoming dangerously polarised. The Brexit debate is the most obvious example. Social justice runs a close second.

The post-war consensus gave birth to the welfare state, a steady rise in living standards and long period of stability. This held that at the heart of a stable community, even one as diverse as the United Kingdom, is a contract: as individuals, we receive, but we also contribute; and as a collective we are interdependent. Mutual respect is the glue that holds us together. No longer.

When I first came to Britain with my mum in 1959 from Greece (as an immigrant) I ran into that refined, noxious English nonsense – class. And a good deal of prejudice.

But I also found a country in post-war recovery building a social order based on fair play, compassion and respect. You gave up your seat on the bus to the elderly. Life was rather dull and class was still endemic. Not everything was hunky dory. Dixon of Dock Green was a fictional character, but he was recognisable. By and large there was a sense of the common good.

Over the past 40 years we have steadily drifted towards what the left calls neo-liberalism: a quasi-religious belief that the market is the only, viable, efficient and successful mechanism with which to organise our lives incentivising us to do better and be better.

This impulse, kick-started by Margaret Thatcher and given a social democratic patina by Tony Blair, received a huge boost with the collapse of a trundling, inefficient, bankrupt and repressive Soviet bloc. Theresa May’s cabinet embodies that ethos as moderate, one-nation-Tories are steadily culled.

We are no longer feeling like the big-hearted country I remember. We are less homogenous and more diverse but we are also more divided, less equal and less tolerant. Our organising principle is no longer fair play but survival of the fittest, strivers or scroungers

The welfare state is slowly being outsourced to private companies whose ethos is profit. As it must be. A company is not a philanthropic entity. And if the hand that feeds it gives it free rein then the ‘end user’ gets a raw deal as the disastrous roll-out of the PIP and Universal Credit policies so painfully shows.

The NHS is in deep crisis; the care system is dysfunctional; the benefit system an affront to decency. People are suffering. Some are dying - needlessly. A market that should be managing the distribution of services efficiently is failing. "Freedom for wolves," as Isaiah Berlin said, "means death for lambs."

And yet the state cannot provide the whole answer. The numbers are just too big: too many people in need of support, too little money. There is also no reason why the talent in the private sector should not be harnessed for the common good.

Imagining that the state alone can provide the answer to the crisis in our care system any more than the market can is to fall into the binary trap that increasingly characterises political debate.

The key lies not in a return to class warfare but to the idea of the nation as an interdependent community. To borrow Jeremy Corbyn’s mantra, policies for the many not the few cannot exclude the few.

In a recent piece for the Scientific American Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes made some compelling points for a best-of-both-worlds approach to solving big problems like climate change and poverty in the face of the neo-liberal juggernaut. Oreskes writes:

“To build a better world we first have to seek it. This requires a different vision, one that embraces priorities other than profit, and places care—for creation and for one another—at its centre. We have to accept the reality that markets are not motivated by the priority of care. And they are certainly not magical.”

When Pope Francis, she goes on, released his encyclical on climate change and inequality, in which he urged the world to take on the interdependent challenges of caring for the planet and caring for the poor, he was accused of being “out of touch.”

Oreskes argues that the Pope is very much in touch with one essential fact: markets may be effective in distributing goods and services efficiently to those who have the money to pay for them, but the needs of the poor go largely unaddressed, and the external costs remain almost entirely unpaid.

So what is to be done?

Government is not the solution, but it has to drive the solution. It must own it and it must hold providers heavily to account.

Care has become a commodity traded in a market where ‘consumers’ are vulnerable sometimes defenceless. This ethos must be reversed.

Finally, power must be vested in the individual. Competitive tendering for people with disabilities must end. Personal budgets must become the iron rule. Personalisation – the idea that people’s care package is designed around them- is at best a partial success.

People with disabilities especially intellectual ones, must be given the support to make the choices they want: supported living, community, shared living, whatever it takes to help them live the lives they want.

The common good, far from being a woolly concept, is an idea with which to anchor social justice and avoid ideological extremes.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

The Binary Trap © Alain Catzeflis 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.