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The many ways of being entitled
SO DAVID Cameron is declaring war on the “culture of entitlement”. By this he refers to people who feel they are entitled to benefits from the state, although his words set off a different cloud of angry bees in my head.
Entitlement comes in many shapes and sizes. Our Prime Minister is from the moneyed upper echelons.
He went to Eton and Oxford and smoothly progressed via one television job in public relations to politics and thence to Number Ten. His oiled advancement suggests one who is entitled to such preference because of who he is, with the top jobs going to the top people, you might say.
If you thought that being presided over by Eton old boys went out in the 1950s under Harold Macmillan, well now it is back in fashion. And should you wonder how the seven per cent of children who go to fee-paying schools still end up having such a massively disproportionate say in our lives, then you would not be alone.
I will admit to a touch of caricature about my summary, yet there is truth in there too. When someone so clearly advantaged turns his attention to those less well appointed, it is bound to leave a sour taste in some mouths, mine included.
Does this mean that Mr Cameron should not address how to cut welfare, as he did on Monday?
Well, not exactly. No politician of whatever persuasion can avoid asking at what point the welfare state should stop. Those on the left tend either to be nervous of joining the argument or suddenly jump alarmingly in an unaccustomed direction and start playing right-wing hopscotch in an attempt to show their ‘toughness’.
This is more naturally the territory of the right who traditionally like nothing better than a spot of scrounger-bashing, preferably from atop a gin-soaked bar-stool somewhere (okay, loaded cliché alert warning again: some habits are just too sweetly satisfying to abandon).
Mr Cameron did not deliver his populist pop against state welfare while sitting on a bar-stool. Instead he chose the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, a man-of-the-shopping-people sort of location: he does like to put himself in workaday settings while wearing his bluest tie and “I understand your pain” frown. One glance at him in this mode and I feel a headache coming on.
As to what he had to say: is it even remotely possible to knock another £10 billion off the already battered welfare bill? Well, I haven’t a clue but then I struggle to trim a tenner from the weekly shop, so don’t ask me.
But I do know two things about such exercises. One is that they are done for unspoken reasons, in Mr Cameron’s case to assuage those on his right flank who fear he has lost it in his arranged marriage with the softy Lib-Dems. And the other is that loaded caricature is too hard to resist in such situations.
So when Mr Cameron suggested removing housing benefit for the under-25s he did so by summoning up “those who work hard and do the right thing” – as opposed, by pointed implication, to those who lounge about living the life of riley on benefits.
Yet according to the Smith Institute, 95 per cent of the £1 billion rise in housing benefit this year will go to people in low-paid work.
So this is not about loiterers in the land of the feckless, but the culmination of a housing crisis that has deep roots – and can in part be traced back to the sale of council houses (started by the Tories, continued under Labour).
According to the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in a report released earlier this month, the number of young people living in private rented accommodation is expected to rise from 1.3 million now to 3.7 million by 2020.
This suggests that Mr Cameron’s desire to remove housing benefit for the under-25s will not keep up with the tough times.
Unless he thinks they can all go home and live with their mummy and daddy on the family estate (loaded cliché alert again: but if you’ve been here before, you know what to expect).
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