Earlier this week on BBC Radio 4 Evan Davies interviewed “a woman” who had ten children. Her and her husband were unemployed and “on benefits”. The context, of course, was the government’s intention to restrict benefits for people who it considers “do not want to work”.
We’ve had this debate before and it seems to me that there is a clear divide in political opinion.
Labour supporters usually argue that it is offensive to suggest that anyone is on benefits through choice and that any attempt to restrict benefits is a dastardly Tory attack on the poor. The Tories, on the other hand believe that there are people who abuse the system (such as women who have children in order to get council housing) but they skate over the problem of how to restrict benefits to irresponsible parents without adversely affecting the children.
As Lord Steel put it, this is a “fiendish problem”.
It is often said that the UK cannot make up it’s mind whether it wants to be European or American. We seem to have traits from both. There are many who would like to see a more left wing, statist society with higher taxes and greater state involvement in the lives of citizens. However, the British also seem to have a contrarian, individualistic streak which is at odds with countries which lean more toward socialism.
I, myself, have contradictory feelings. Having just returned from Cologne I admire the more harmonious and orderly nature of society there. Discussing schools with a colleague I was told that children starting secondary school attend a three day group event. A sort of team building exercise to allow the children to get to know each other. This sounded to me like an excellent idea. On the other hand, I’d be lieing if I didn’t admit to thinking: Bloody kids, just go to school and shut up.
I find myself reacting against the unthinking observance of rules and regulations. At the airport when hunting for the airline check in I had a brief fleeting idea that if I’d got in the wrong queue I would have been arrested.
I wonder if Britain’s problem is that it has never really committed to either the American or European models. In the past we have provided benefits for the unemployed but only enough to keep them ticking over. We have not taken the Scandinavian and we make it relatively easy for people to lose their jobs argument that this “flexibility” is good for the economy.
At the same time we have not committed to the all out capitalism of the Americans where bankruptcy is seen as a wound acquired along the way to success and where citizens actively engage in their society through voluntary action and political activism. We have allowed free markets but always with a safety net.
In Cologne I had discussed ownership of Internet domain names. The fact that they could be bought up by individuals and big companies could be forced to pay a premium for a domain associated with their name. Mercedes wanting Mercedes.com for example. The German opinion was that people should not be allowed to withhold this domain names from a company like Mercedes.
Intuitively I was against this restriction but I gave it some thought. On the face of it restricting the Mercedes domain name to the Mercedes car maker sounds fair. However, why should the car maker get it in instead of the small shop keeper, Fritz Mercedes of Frankfurt? Why should Fritz not be allowed to own mercedes.com? It could be argued that the car maker are bigger and more widely associated with the name but this is merely rewarding power.
The German reaction would be to have a government department creating policy and arbitrating disputes. Paid for by the tax payer of courser.
I decided that my opinion is bugger it, let the free market decide. Nobody has a right to a domain name. You, want it, you buy it.
I recall an earlier trip to Cologne where I inadvertently neglected to place my shampoo and toothpaste in “transparent plastic bags” as is required when taking hand luggage through security. On the way out the British security staff confiscated the offending items. In Cologne, of course, I acquired new liquids, and on returning the German security personnel forced me to go back to the shop, purchase a transparent plastic bag, queue up and DO IT AS INSTRUCTED.
I guess that the real difference between the British and everyone else is that we’re not so interested in ideology. We muddle through. We take what works from anywhere. Some call it pragmatism. To put it another way: We’re a bunch of tarts!