October 24, 2011
Idleness takes two forms today, one enforced and the other voluntary. One is the result of unemployment made worse by recession, spending cutbacks, growing competition from abroad and a dozen other economic factors. The other is the predictable effect of a dependency culture that has grown steadily over the past years. A sense of entitlement. A sense that the State owes us a living. A sense that not only is it possible to get something for nothing but that we have a right to do so. This, seventy years on from the Beveridge Report, is the charge many people level against it.
I have spent the past year making a documentary for BBC2 in which I have tried to deal with that charge. In the process I have talked to people who are desperate for a job – any job – and to people for whom idleness is a lifestyle choice and are quite happy to admit to it. I have talked to assorted academics who have studied the subject for decades and arrived at entirely contradictory conclusions. I have been to the United States, where they had their own welfare revolution a few years ago, and have witnessed some of its outcomes in the soup kitchens of Manhattan. And we commissioned our own opinion poll to test the mood of the nation. Do we still want the benefits system that the welfare state has spawned and if not … why not?
Inevitably our opinions (our prejudices maybe) are influenced by our childhood. I was born in a working class district of Cardiff called Splott. My father was a self-employed French polisher and my mother had been a hairdresser and still managed to do the odd home perm in our kitchen for friends and neighbours in between bringing up five children. We were often broke but probably neither much better off nor worse off than most other families in the street. All the parents seemed to work just as hard as my own – with one exception. The father in question had lots of children and no job and nor did he seem to want one. He was happy living on the dole. Because of that he was treated with contempt.
That was more than half a century ago. When I went back to my old neighbourhood we found others like him. In the words of an old lady who lived opposite my house when I was born and who lives there still: ‘If they can get money without working, they will.’ Times have changed, she told me sadly, and the ‘pride in working’ has gone.