John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for April, 2013

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How Thatcherism politicised the arts in Britain

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Margaret Thatcher may have had no understanding of the arts but her ideas created a cultural earthquake

In February 1982, the English band The Jam appeared on Top of the Pops to promote a single that had just become No 1 in the national charts. These were the days when two songs could go together to form a so-called double A-side, and the band were granted the rare honour of performing both their offerings: Precious, and Town Called Malice. The former was a murky, enigmatic piece about the existential contortions of love and desire, largely lost to history. The latter has long been a part of the pop canon, still played by its songwriter around the world. “It’s a funny thing, that song: it’s become public property, almost,” said Paul Weller in 2012. “And wherever I play, people go mad for it.”

Whether latter-day audiences truly understand its lyrics is an interesting question, because Town Called Malice is not one of those supposedly “classic” songs whose lyrics can mean anything to anyone at any time. Its words are a razor-sharp commentary on a specific social moment: the austere, strife-torn years of 1981 and 1982, when deflation was let loose, riots tore through English cities, unemployment headed towards three million, and Britain lost a fifth of its manufacturing capacity. Weller’s words evoked it all: “Rows and rows of disused milkfloats stand dying in the dairy yard/And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts … To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear/It’s a big decision in a town called Malice.”

It remains pop’s most accomplished portrait of the Thatcher era, though it was not short of competition. The Specials’ brilliant Ghost Town had been number one the previous summer, just as the riots reached their peak. Just around the corner was the miners’ strike, and the decisive arrival of Billy Bragg, singing penetrating songs about the misrule perpetrated by the government, and advising his listeners that “wearing badges is not enough, in days like these”. At the time of the Falklands war, Elvis Costello sang a magnificently moving song titled Shipbuilding, and eventually followed it with an imagining of Thatcher’s passing called Tramp The Dirt Down. The latter represented a strand of music that was as personal as political: The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret, another Weller song titled The Lodgers (subtitled She Was Only a Shopkeeper’s Daughter), and Morrissey’s Margaret On The Guillotine. By way of a punchline, there was the punk collective Crass’s admirably subtle post-Falklands piece, Margaret Thatcher How Does it Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?

“With Thatcherism, you were very definite about where you stood, weren’t you?” Weller later told me. “It radicalised a lot of people. You couldn’t sit on the fence, seeing what was being done to the country: the dismantling of the trade unions, and the unemployment, and break-up of communities – the whole thing, really. So you came down on one side or the other, and that was reflected in my work.”

He was hardly alone. In our own age, hard times and a government pledged to roll back the state have prompted only a smattering of politicised art, drama, literature and music, but the 1980s were awash with it – partly because just about everything that happened could be associated with a woman who might have tested the imaginative powers of even the most fanciful creative mind. But there she was: the living embodiment of no end of very British qualities, from swingeing moralism to the economics of the kitchen table. Thatcher herself had almost no cultural appetites – famously, she enthused about the joys of re-reading Frederick Forsyth novels, and said her favourite single was Telstar, the 1962 instrumental by the Tornados. Hanif Kureishi rightly claimed that she had “no understanding of what a central place the arts have in British life, or how good Britain is at producing books, films, theatre and music”. The paradox, then, was delicious, because Thatcher, her ideas, and their impact on society all served to create a cultural earthquake.

To even begin to list examples is to be hopelessly arbitrary. But anyway: the social reality of the early Thatcher period was captured by Mike Leigh’s fascinatingly grim film Meantime – much the same world portrayed in Town Called Malice, acted out by Phil Daniels, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. On television, Alan Bleasdale came up with Boys From The Blackstuff, a portrait of a Liverpool all but killed by the 1980s downturn, in which Bernard Hill’s Yosser Hughes intoned a phrase that was a byword for its time – “Gissa job”. A new breed of alternative comedians, most of whom have long since become contented members of the cultural establishment, made it obligatory to do routines focused on the people Ben Elton called “Thatch” and “Normo Tebbs”. Even innocuous-looking stuff was full of socio-political substance: witness the underrated comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which began in 1983: the tale of a gang of émigré British building labourers, whose story spoke volumes about a working class laid waste.

Perhaps most fascinating, though, were the cultural items that documented Thatcherism’s passage from being a matter of politics to something close to an ideal for living. Martin Amis’s Money was among the earliest examples, with a subtext that depicted, as the journalist Nick Cohen later put it, “the old, liberal establishment of social-democratic Britain being pushed out of the way by cruel and rapacious brutes from the new Tory order”. In the brilliant film My Beautiful Launderette, the character of Omar was another embodiment of Thatcher’s idealised vision of capitalism: Kureishi wrote the screenplay, and acknowledged it was partly “a satire on Thatcherite enterprise”, as well as capturing the undertones of race, class and sexuality that swirled around Thatcher’s time in office. One thinks also of Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money, and Margaret Drabble’s novel The Radiant Way, both published in 1987. It featured a TV executive called Charles Headleand: “Previously, he had been aggressively out for himself,” Drabble wrote. “Now that had widened, had become an article of faith: self-interest was the guiding principle of life, the market was supreme, and people who disregarded that fact were heretics, or plain ignorant.”

Further towards the mainstream, much the same idea defined a comic character who became a household name: Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney. According to the writer Alwyn Turner’s 1980s history, Rejoice! Rejoice! , one critic called him “Thatcherism’s shameless Golem”. Each week, he would swagger on the set of the Channel 4 comedy show Saturday Live and bellow: “Shut your marf and look at my wad.” Just to ensure the whole story was told, Enfield also created a Geordie alter-ego called Buggerallmoney.

One aspect of Thatcher’s impact on the arts is easy to overlook, given that it largely became apparent after she had left office. But if the message going out from government throughout the 1980s was that enterprise and initiative were the only way forward, that was bound to have all kinds of cultural manifestations. In 1983, the Thatcher government introduced the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, whereby £40 a week was paid to people who could pass themselves off as small-scale entrepreneurs, and among the beneficiaries were the founders of the comic Viz, Tracy Emin and the Mancunian band Happy Mondays. The latter’s mentor, Tony Wilson, once explained to me that his charges – some of whom were part-time drug dealers – were a breed apart from the kind of musicians who endlessly protested against the Tories: “Even with Thatcher, the Mondays were very open: ‘Yeah, she’s all right. She’s a heavy dude.’” In retrospect, this was no surprise: by 1989, the band would be among the figureheads of the hedonistic upsurge called Acid House, based around illicit “raves” run by people who were following the Thatcherite gospel to the letter.

In turn, some of the late Thatcher period’s entrepreneurial energy would define the moment that was rather tawdrily labelled Cool Britannia. Meanwhile, a very interesting cultural development was afoot: the quiet rise of a new Tory generation who had pulled off an amazing act of doublethink – worshipping Thatcher while also immersing themselves in a subculture that defined itself against her.

In 2008 I spoke to some of them while putting together a Guardian feature that jumped off David Cameron’s famous love of The Smiths, a band who had leant their support to a range of anti-Thatcher causes and whose music still evokes the cold, polarised atmosphere of much of the Thatcher era. Among my interviewees was the Tory culture minister Ed Vaizey, who reeled off a long list of his 1980s leftwing favourites and reminded me that when he first heard the aforementioned Stand Down Margaret, his first reaction was to wonder why The Beat were having a pop at the Queen’s sister.

“I had to lead this double life,” he told me. “It’s hard to explain, really; some of the political messages went over my head. But I thought Thatcher was fantastic, and I was listening to a lot of bands saying she was destroying the country. I suppose I like passion, in politics and music, and these were the passionate bands who were around.”

Paul Weller, I reminded him, had recently called Thatcher and her followers “absolute scum”. “That hurts,” Vaizey said, as he once again conjured up images of young Tories frugging around to songs about unemployment and dead Argentinians. “The Jam were the band that defined my teenage years. I absolutely adored them.”

John Harris

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Welcome to Toytown: what life is like in new-build Britain

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

In Cambourne, near Cambridge, mock-Georgian houses sit next to a replica stone circle, along streets with names such as Quidditch Lane. Can these new developments really recreate traditional village life?

They are selling new houses in Cambourne, Cambridgeshire: two-, three- and four-beds with names such as the Flatford, the Langdale and the Belbury. Inside a row of show homes, the decor is a riot of Cath Kidstonesque fabrics, deep reds and bright greens, as fixtures and fittings jump from prewar art deco to 1950s modernism. The Taylor Wimpey brochure advises that its pictures of what’s on offer are “from an imaginary viewpoint”, intended “to give a feel for the development, not an accurate description of each property”.

Across a nearby rectangle of grass is a kids’ playground, built around a mock stone circle and a climbing frame intended to look like a Spanish galleon. Five minutes’ walk away is a road named Quidditch Lane, after the sport in Harry Potter. Its opening on to a main road is being stalked by a solitary swan, which hisses at me as I walk by.

It’s a Wednesday morning in this 3,400-home settlement nine miles west of Cambridge. Save for the occasional hum of a bus, the roads are almost silent. Most human traffic is made up of lone mothers, quietly pushing their offspring to a shopping area dominated by a huge Morrisons. They embody a surprising fact about Cambourne: in 2009, it was revealed that it had the highest birthrate of anywhere in the UK – 24.1 births per 100 women, beating even India and Brazil.

In the weekly community cafe hosted at a centre known as the Hub, mention of this is greeted with amused shrugs, and the suggestion that now Cambourne finally has half-decent broadband, human reproduction might fall. “They always said there was something in the water,” 38-year-old Lucy Halls says. “But it’s obvious why it’s happened: young families, more affordable accommodation than you’d get in Cambridge. And there are more and more amenities, so I think it’ll stay quite high.” She is a mother of three. “There are a lot of people who have three children,” she says. “And more.”

In many other respects, Cambourne – split between the three “villages” of Great Cambourne, Lower Cambourne and Upper Cambourne – feels like an accurate microcosm of modern Britain. The pristine, faux-traditional houses are the same as those you see all over the country, offering the promise of “traditional living with modern comforts”. The shops and businesses along the central parade are instantly familiar: Domino’s Pizza, Lloyds Pharmacy, a branch of the Indian franchise Chutney Joe.

The social fabric of Cambourne seems very dependent on private companies. Most amenities and public spaces came via Section 106 agreements, an innovation from the 1990 Planning Act, whereby developers can sweeten their pitch to a local council by promising to fund – and often build – schools, doctors’ surgeries, community centres and more. According to Roger Hume, a local parish councillor and proud Cambourne resident, the firms that built the place have rather dragged their feet: the Hub, he says, was meant to be built by a consortium of construction firms after 1,000 homes had gone up, but arrived only once the figure was twice that. He points mournfully to a paved square outside Morrisons: early in Cambourne’s development, the parish council suggested it might be the ideal setting for a farmers’ market, but Morrisons owns the space and would not oblige – claiming, Hume says, that the kind of produce that might be sold outdoors was already available on its premises. (Morrisons will offer no comment on this, claiming that it happened too long ago for anyone to give its side of the story.)

Cambourne is gleamingly new, built from 1998 onwards and still expanding. When you first get here, it suggests either a film set or an overgrown Hornby railway layout: elsewhere in Cambridgeshire, it’s often known as Toytown. Initially, it was meant to embody a vision of an eco-friendly future in which people would live and work locally, but much of that quickly came to grief: it registers a larger per-household car ownership than the surrounding area and just about all its residents work elsewhere.

What’s interesting is that its newness seems to have led to a kind of frontier spirit, reflected in a massed drive to make things happen and a palpable local friendliness. There is an array of clubs and societies: book groups, sports teams, a bowling club, mother and toddler meetings, and a timebanking organisation that sees to volunteering and mutual help.

Everyone I approach happily talks at length, usually with a breezy kind of contentment, yet you do not have to look too hard to find concerns. People tell me they are worried about proposals to build another 2,500 houses, and what that might mean for the reportedly overburdened medical centre. They also fret about the lack of facilities for teenagers, and what might happen when their kids reach adolescence. Already, some disgruntled locals have renamed Cambourne “Crimebourne” and a lot of people mention the clumps of teenage kids who gather near the supermarket.

I meet 19-year-old Stuart Forbes near the shops. “It’s really boring here,” he says. “There’s not much to do for people my age. There’s only two pubs.” He gestures at one in the middle distance. “One’s for old pissheads, and it’s expensive, and the other one’s too small.” He tells me he moved here three years ago from the Arbury area of Cambridge, after pleading with his parents to stay put. “The buses aren’t very good either. I’ve had to wait two hours for one. And the latest bus back from Cambridge is at 11pm. The cab fare’s £30. So you can see why I don’t get out much.” He says he’s on a day off from his job at Morrisons, and he’s obviously in search of entertainment: having posed for a picture, he plods off in the direction of Quidditch Lane.

I first came to Cambourne in 2009, at the suggestion of the writer Iain Sinclair. I was involved in a BBC4 documentary about the north/south divide and, though few people had heard of the place, he believed it said something very powerful about the future of the UK. He describes it now as “a totally non-organic growth – you swipe a computer screen, and create something, and then insert it on an empty piece of ground. The human aspect follows later, and has to make the best of it.”

Britain desperately needs more housing. Whether it comes via George Osborne’s schemes to encourage the buying of “new-build” homes, or the regular suggestion from the left that we need “a massive programme of housebuilding”, places such as Cambourne will presumably come to be an ever more dominant feature of the British landscape. But what is it like to live in them? Put simply, if you use the word “village” and learn from the planning mistakes of the past, can you quickly build a community from scratch?

We have long had new towns, from 1920s developments such as Welwyn Garden City to the sprawl of Milton Keynes, built in the dying days of postwar optimism 40 years later. But councils and developers now favour smaller and much more traditional-looking developments, usually on the outskirts of existing towns. Most are somewhat faceless, and are already blurring into older expanses of sprawl.

The more ambitious schemes are often talked up as successors to the model villages of the 19th and early 20th centuries that were built by rich philanthropists: George Cadbury’s Bourneville, Titus Salt’s Saltaire, William Lever’s Port Sunlight. Then, powerful men often saw their creations as places that would embody the values of Christianity, public health and teetotalism; now, though churches are often included in new developments, such places represent slightly more mundane aspects of daily life – aspirational consumerism, home ownership and, very often, the quest for old-fashioned neighbourliness.

One fashionable term for these creations is “exurb”, coined by American writer Auguste Comte Spectorsky and short for “extra-urban”. In Britain, they reflect the 1980s and 1990s’ rejection of high-rise modernism, and a revived attachment to supposed vernacular architecture that often comes out looking downright kitsch. An integral part of all that is a school of thought called new urbanism, a product of the 1980s, which set itself against suburban sprawl and was aimed at the creation of neighbourhoods in which walking would be the main means of transit and there had to be a recognised centre. Its most famous monument is the town of Seaside in Florida – a rather icky melange of past architectural styles that, poetically enough, was used as the location for The Truman Show.

Some of this story does not so much reflect trends in architecture as our collective taste and the hard reality of the housing economy. Charles Holland designs much more forward-looking developments as part of the architecture practice Fat (it stands for Fashion, Architecture, Taste) and he has a simple explanation of the ersatz traditionalism that defines so many new-build homes. “There’s a very small number of companies who have the economic power to do these kinds of developments,” he says, “so it’s a deeply conservative, un-innovative market. High land prices, the process of planning – it all requires huge investment, which narrows it down to your Barratts and Taylor Wimpeys.” Holland also mentions “a very strong strain in the UK of a nostalgic, idealistic, back-to-the-country kind of idea. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that we were the first industrialised country: we went through a very rapacious process of urbanisation.”

On the outskirts of Aylesbury is a “village” called Fairford Leys, a compact development completed around a decade ago. It contains 1,900 homes and a population just short of 5,000, and is apparently home to lots of officers from the Metropolitan police, all content with the hour-long commute to London. As in Cambourne, there is a sense of reference points run amok. The houses are mostly neo-Georgian, but the central area is bordered by two cod-medieval village walls. Either side of a bridge that forms the development’s entrance, you pass two red-brick Italianate towers, containing apartments. A shop that sells tiles, gifts, toys and homemade sandwiches is named Utopia. The main square contains a Victorian-looking bandstand, but it’s dwarfed by a modern church, with a circular sign that looms over everything like a giant sun and reads: “WHERE GOD IS THERE IS LOVE.”

A local mother tells me that living here makes her feel like she’s on holiday, and I can see what she means, but not everything is quite so idyllic: cutting across the development are power lines that buzz and crackle overhead, and if plans for high-speed rail become a reality, the tracks will pass only a few hundred yards away.

The masterplan for Fairford Leys was drawn up by John Simpson, the architect whose CV also includes the redeveloped public space around St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. It was built on land effectively put into the green belt in the 1920s by Ernest Cook (grandson of travel agent Thomas Cook), which had left a gap in Aylesbury’s ever-expanding sprawl. The decision to build on it, Simpson says, was dependent on avoiding “more suburbia” and he attempted to make that distinction by designing plenty of squares and emphasising “a public realm, rather than just leftover space, which is what you get on housing estates”. Also important was having “a variety of different houses: you build it all cheek-by-jowl in the way that you’d see in a traditional English village or town”.

The first person I meet in Fairford Leys is Leesa Kehoe, 28, who works in Cutler’s barber shop. She lives around the corner in a rented flat. “It’s the best place I’ve ever lived,” she says. “It’s quiet. Everyone’s nice. There’s no trouble – you don’t hear police cars. Everything’s on your doorstep: you don’t need to go into town. I walk home in the dark and I don’t feel scared.” What about what it looks like? “It’s pretty. I’m used to living on council estates.” How would she feel if I said it looked like a film set? “That’s fine. Film sets look perfect, don’t they?”

But from a nearby barber’s chair, there come grumbles. Iain Thorlby, 68, is a native of Fife who moved here with his wife a few years ago. He grimaces at the idea that Fairford Leys is some kind of idyll. “I don’t really like it,” he says. “It’s like Toytown. It’s… prissy. I refused to move here initially.”

What changed his mind? “My wife. But she doesn’t like it now, either.”

If most of Fairford Leys looks surreally neat and tidy, much of that is down to a 16-page set of development control guidelines. Conservatories must not have aluminum or steel windows, or a roof pitch “greater than 20 degrees”. The replacement of external doors is allowed only “if the original pattern and colour is maintained”, and the same applies to gates and railings. Even electricity and gas meters must conform, with “colours similar to [the] background wall to minimise obtrusiveness if on exterior of building”.

The clerk to the parish council is 50-year-old Keith Gray, a former Whitehall civil servant. “We knew if we were just to allow anyone to come and do what they want, it wouldn’t remain like this,” he says. “The reason people want to live here is because it looks the way it does. We have to protect it.” We talk about what that might mean for anyone who wanted to repaint their front door: “We would raise our eyebrows if people wanted a strange colour. We want to keep it nice – well looked after. And people support us in all that.”

As in Cambourne, everyone I meet is happy to talk. On my way out of Fairford Leys, I chat to 48-year-old Terri Clarke, and Sophie Lawrence, 36, who have just picked up their kids from school. We talk directly under the power lines, and both tell me they purposely chose houses well away from them. “We did worry about it,” says Terri, who moved here 12 years ago. “You know, could they boil your head? And you read about links to cancer.” What, I wonder, of all those stringent restrictions on what you can do to your house?

“People don’t really adhere to them,” Terri says.

“Well, I’m not allowed solar panels,” Sophie says.

Do they think they’ll stay here? “I doubt it,” Terri says. “It’s like a goldfish bowl. Everyone knows your business. I prefer not to live on an estate.” This is a word that the people in charge of Fairford Leys never mention. “It’s referred to as a village, but it’s an estate,” Terri insists. “The fact that it was all built at the same time means it’s an estate. Villages evolve, don’t they?”

Poundbury in Dorset has been evolving since the mid-1990s and is easily Britain’s most famous – or infamous – new-build village: the brainchild of Prince Charles, erected on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Compared with Cambourne and Fairford Leys, it is altogether more ambitious, and much more overwhelming. On the day I visit, it is also amazingly quiet. Around 2,200 people are said to live here in just over 1,100 homes, but you’d never know. For whole hours at a time, any noise comes only from the building work that will eventually add another 1,200 houses and swell Poundbury’s population to 5,000.

Poundbury is effectively a new-build add-on to Dorchester, Dorset’s 18,000-population county town. Its architecture bounces between eras and styles: big Georgian houses sit next to cottages apparently inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, folksy, stone-built creations and other dwellings that draw on the local flint-and-brick tradition. There are no road signs or double yellow lines, but there are plenty of elements that hint at the prince’s involvement: a suite of treatment rooms occupied by a homeopath, a hypnotherapist and a practitioner of the Alexander Technique; a huge central space called Queen Mother Square.

Perhaps in keeping with the crunch of aristocratic driveways, all the pavements are covered in gravel. Yet, though many people in Dorchester view Poundbury as some kind of posh ghetto (four-bedroom houses here go for as much as £400,000), 35% of the housing is designated as “social” and split between rented and shared-equity homes.

The chair of the local residents’ association is Margaret Morrissey, 69, a former psychiatric nurse. Having lived locally for 30 years, she has been in Poundbury since 2008. We meet for a coffee at Poundbury’s upmarket garden centre: she says she was pretty much indifferent about the first phase of development, but then visited and thought the place was “beautiful, like a dream”. By way of a reference point, she mentions the Georgian splendour of Bath. “Everyone is reasonably new to the area, so they don’t have friends, and you’ve got to make them,” she says. “It works. It really does.”

In her telling, there are only two areas of concern: the ubiquitous gravel (”That does make it difficult for mums with buggies, and a nightmare in the summer, when kids are wearing Crocs”) and, as in Cambourne, the lack of amenities for young people. “We are working on that. We’ve got more and more teenagers, and there’s not an awful lot for them to do. They tend to walk into Dorchester or hang around places we don’t want them to.”

We talk about the man who drew up the masterplan for Poundbury: the architect Léon Krier, a flamboyant native of Luxembourg – also involved in the designs for Seaside, Florida – and occasionally seen locally with his trademark jumper slung around his shoulders. A copy of his grand treatise, The Architecture Of Community, is in my bag. Stuffed with hand-drawn diagrams, it is impressive, but borderline unreadable.

Ten minutes later, blunt reality intrudes. “I think most of Poundbury is shoddily built,” says 41-year-old Tony Dovell, a local social housing tenant and scaffolder whom I meet just in front of a neoclassical fountain. “They probably used the cheapest materials.” Showing me a large building to his left, he points out its already faded rendering and the efflorescence – a white salt deposit, often a sign of cheap bricks. He also bemoans how scattered the shops are, which means lots of walking, and many locals driving elsewhere to shop at big supermarkets. “We’re moving in the next two weeks,” he says. “That’s how much we love it.”

Emma Friendship-Kilburn, 29, is out with her border terrier. “A lot of people find it too quiet here,” she says. “But it suits me – you know, not having children running round, leaving litter everywhere.” And what of the quality of the buildings? “We tried to put up a coat hook and it pulled away all the plaster. We’ve had problems with the plumbing. It’s quite… renowned that there have been a lot of problems. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had an issue with maintenance. If I owned my flat, it would bother me, but I’m renting.”

When I contact the Duchy of Cornwall with such complaints, its response refers to “six house builders on Poundbury who we believe do a good job in delivering high-quality architecture and individual design, using traditional and locally sourced materials”. It goes on: “Inevitably there are some defects, and with the passage of time there are maintenance issues, although maintenance is, of course, down to the owners… We believe the majority of householders are very happy with their homes in Poundbury.”

There are people here who do seem happy, albeit in an understated kind of way. While walking around, I meet 66-year-old Trish Young, who moved here with her husband from New Zealand, having sold their gourmet salad business. “We like the fact that it’s new, and it’s attached to a town,” she tells me. “It’s good. It’s nice and clean. And safe.” In her case, and in plenty of others’, Poundbury’s appeal seems to come down to something easily forgotten: that for plenty of people, the merits or demerits of postmodern architecture are less important than the promise of peace and quiet.

As I leave, the sun is beating down on Queen Mother Square, and small groups of people are trickling out of Poundbury’s Little Waitrose. As usual, the loudest sound is the roar and clatter of diggers and cement mixers, engaged in that very British activity of building the future, while endlessly reviving the past.

John Harris

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Politics Weekly podcast: the week welfare changed; social class; and Paolo Di Canio

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

The beginning of a new financial year meant the introduction of a clutch of changes to the state benefits system. Access to legal aid has been curtailed, social housing tenants with spare bedrooms will be asked to pay extra for them, council tax benefit will be removed from some recipients and many more changes will have to be negotiated by those of working age who rely on the state for any part of their income.

In a speech to Morrisons supermarket staff in Kent, George Osborne spoke of the necessity of the measures – not merely on grounds of cost, but of a moral imperative. State benefits, he said, were leading to perverse incentives and trapping people in poverty.

Joining Tom Clark this week to discuss this are Guardian columnists John Harris, Martin Kettle and Polly Toynbee.

Also this week: a major new survey on social class in the UK has turned up seven categories instead of the traditional three. Do the major political parties need to take note?

And should extremist political views disqualify someone from certain jobs? The appointment of Paolo Di Canio, an admirer of Mussolini, as the new manager of Sunderland AFC sparked the resignation of David Miliband from the club’s board – and a fierce debate about the new coach’s past political statements.

Leave your thoughts below – and find the podcast on Soundcloud.

We’re taking our spring recess next week – Politics Weekly will return on 18 April.

Tom Clark
Polly Toynbee
Martin Kettle
John Harris
Phil Maynard

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We have to talk about why some people agree with benefit cuts | John Harris

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Centre-left politicians catch glimpses of public opinion on ‘welfare’ and are frozen, while the right seizes its chance

So, here it all comes. As of Monday, the spare bedroom tax is not merely the subject of highly charged radio phone-ins, but blunt reality. The same goes for alterations to council tax benefit, and the overlooked change whereby the Department for Work and Pensions’ discretionary social fund is no more.

The period for the 1% cap on increases to working-age benefits starts in five days’ time, and next week the DWP will begin the transition from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. The government hopes to save £2bn, largely by denying up to 500,000 people the new benefit. From 15 April the across-the-board annual benefits cap of £26,000 will be piloted in four London boroughs. And all the time, the dawn of universal credit – due in October – looms, amid plenty of signs of hubris and ineptitude leading to disaster.

Food banks are anticipating a surge in demand, and worrying about their capacity to cope. Churches are up in arms, as evidenced by a recent intervention by Anglican bishops, and the weekend’s protests from Baptists, Methodists, the Church Of Scotland and the United Reformed Church. Loudest of all is a great chorus of lefty ire – perhaps lacking when the reforms were making their way through parliament, but now in full effect. The usual rules apply: the whole thing is a conspiracy by the Tories and their allies in the media; Labour most not be gripped by the disease of Blairite betrayal; it is time for charters, and demonstrations and, if things get sticky, multi-signatory letters to the liberal-left media, so as to really put the wind up them.

At which point, some polling numbers, just as crude and blunt as the changes themselves. According to ComRes, 64% of Britons believe the benefits system either does not work well or is “failing”, and 40% of us think that at least half of all benefit recipients are “scroungers”. Ipsos Mori reckons 84% of its respondents either agree or tend to agree with stricter work-capability tests for disabled people, and 78% are in accord with the idea that benefits should be docked if people turn down work that pays the same or less than they get in benefits.

The same research suggests 62% are OK with the idea of benefits being capped “if people choose to have more children”, and 57% agree with the essential logic of capping housing benefit. When it comes to big-picture stuff, a majority of us seem to believe in the notion of welfare dependency (once a controversial trope peddled by the nasty Tory right, but now as firmly built into the public consciousness as the idea that the poor spend too much of their money on booze, fags and Sky TV). It may be a cliche to suggest that tens of millions of people have precious little objection to what Iain Duncan Smith is up to, but that does not make it any less true.

As yet another poll – by YouGov, commissioned by the TUC – proved last year, people seem to hold wildly inaccurate views about the scale of benefit fraud and the proportion of spending that goes on people who cannot find work, and more. But in three years of regularly asking people what they think about the welfare state, I have never heard a single voice echoing the bien-pensant – and factually accurate – view that benefit fraud accounts for a tiny share of social security spending. Instead, people think it is a real, urgent problem, and everyone claims to know someone who does it.

The day after George Osborne floated the idea of a child benefit cap at the Tory conference in Birmingham, the argument in nearby Handsworth was not about the principle but when it should kick in. Down the road in Newtown, I had already canvassed local views on the link between low pay and people’s supposed unwillingness to take work, and serially bumped up against a proposal curtly suggested by a shift worker I met outside a budget supermarket: “Cut the benefit.”

In Warrington, Liverpool, Hartlepool, Peterborough and many other places, I have heard much the same stuff, and two rules always apply. First, as against the idea that disaffection with the benefits system amounts to a petit bourgeois roar from the suburbs, a lot of the noise gets louder as you head into the most disadvantaged parts of society. Second, it is the under-30s who have the most severe perspective of all. Polling bears this latter point out: in the aforementioned ComRes poll, the share of those aged 18-34 who thought a half or more of people on benefits were “scroungers” outstripped that of all other age groups by nearly 10 percentage points.

Much of this strain of public sentiment has always been with us, though in the days when one-nation Toryism was still thriving, and the Labour-voting working class could just about be understood as a coherent and united political entity, politicians tended to avert their eyes from it. But with all that long gone, the politics of so-called welfare now falls one of two ways: centre-left politicians catch glimpses of public opinion and stay frozen to the spot, while the right endlessly seizes its chance.

This is why Labour politicians are in such contortions about the benefits system, why Ed Miliband’s opposition to the 1% cap on benefit increases was an underrated act of political bravery, and why Labour MPs recently made the infamous decision to abstain when the Commons voted on a bill that will prevent 250,000 people from receiving £130m in rebates, after regulations covering unpaid work experience were judged unlawful by the high court. They are usually terrified, and not without reason.

Any kind of textured conversation has yet to start. No one, on the left or right, has much to say about how distant the benefits system is from our ongoing skills crisis, and the idea that people who cannot find work may well be in need of training and education, rather than incessant nudges towards the bottom of the labour market. The undeveloped idea of a more contributory system is probably the only way out of the mess, and a useful means of highlighting the grimness of what is happening. I have met many victims of the government’s cruelties who have dutifully paid national insurance for most of their adult lives, only to be kicked around beyond endurance – and these voices need to get much louder.

There is still a huge problem with language, and the ubiquity of the hopelessly loaded term “welfare”. Last week the Unite union launched a website called Our Welfare Works, and thus stumbled at the start. Meanwhile, the entry of the church into the debate may or may not mark a watershed point, as we begin to find out whether Duncan Smith has overreached himself. Like the Anglicans, Methodists and the rest, I will be praying he has. But don’t count on it.

John Harris

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We have to talk about why some people agree with benefit cuts | John Harris

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Centre-left politicians catch glimpses of public opinion on ‘welfare’ and are frozen, while the right seizes its chance

So, here it all comes. As of Monday, the spare bedroom tax is not merely the subject of highly charged radio phone-ins, but blunt reality. The same goes for alterations to council tax benefit, and the overlooked change whereby the Department for Work and Pensions’ discretionary social fund is no more.

The period for the 1% cap on increases to working-age benefits starts in five days’ time, and next week the DWP will begin the transition from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. The government hopes to save £2bn, largely by denying up to 500,000 people the new benefit. From 15 April the across-the-board annual benefits cap of £26,000 will be piloted in four London boroughs. And all the time, the dawn of universal credit – due in October – looms, amid plenty of signs of hubris and ineptitude leading to disaster.

Food banks are anticipating a surge in demand, and worrying about their capacity to cope. Churches are up in arms, as evidenced by a recent intervention by Anglican bishops, and the weekend’s protests from Baptists, Methodists, the Church Of Scotland and the United Reformed Church. Loudest of all is a great chorus of lefty ire – perhaps lacking when the reforms were making their way through parliament, but now in full effect. The usual rules apply: the whole thing is a conspiracy by the Tories and their allies in the media; Labour most not be gripped by the disease of Blairite betrayal; it is time for charters, and demonstrations and, if things get sticky, multi-signatory letters to the liberal-left media, so as to really put the wind up them.

At which point, some polling numbers, just as crude and blunt as the changes themselves. According to ComRes, 64% of Britons believe the benefits system either does not work well or is “failing”, and 40% of us think that at least half of all benefit recipients are “scroungers”. Ipsos Mori reckons 84% of its respondents either agree or tend to agree with stricter work-capability tests for disabled people, and 78% are in accord with the idea that benefits should be docked if people turn down work that pays the same or less than they get in benefits.

The same research suggests 62% are OK with the idea of benefits being capped “if people choose to have more children”, and 57% agree with the essential logic of capping housing benefit. When it comes to big-picture stuff, a majority of us seem to believe in the notion of welfare dependency (once a controversial trope peddled by the nasty Tory right, but now as firmly built into the public consciousness as the idea that the poor spend too much of their money on booze, fags and Sky TV). It may be a cliche to suggest that tens of millions of people have precious little objection to what Iain Duncan Smith is up to, but that does not make it any less true.

As yet another poll – by YouGov, commissioned by the TUC – proved last year, people seem to hold wildly inaccurate views about the scale of benefit fraud and the proportion of spending that goes on people who cannot find work, and more. But in three years of regularly asking people what they think about the welfare state, I have never heard a single voice echoing the bien-pensant – and factually accurate – view that benefit fraud accounts for a tiny share of social security spending. Instead, people think it is a real, urgent problem, and everyone claims to know someone who does it.

The day after George Osborne floated the idea of a child benefit cap at the Tory conference in Birmingham, the argument in nearby Handsworth was not about the principle but when it should kick in. Down the road in Newtown, I had already canvassed local views on the link between low pay and people’s supposed unwillingness to take work, and serially bumped up against a proposal curtly suggested by a shift worker I met outside a budget supermarket: “Cut the benefit.”

In Warrington, Liverpool, Hartlepool, Peterborough and many other places, I have heard much the same stuff, and two rules always apply. First, as against the idea that disaffection with the benefits system amounts to a petit bourgeois roar from the suburbs, a lot of the noise gets louder as you head into the most disadvantaged parts of society. Second, it is the under-30s who have the most severe perspective of all. Polling bears this latter point out: in the aforementioned ComRes poll, the share of those aged 18-34 who thought a half or more of people on benefits were “scroungers” outstripped that of all other age groups by nearly 10 percentage points.

Much of this strain of public sentiment has always been with us, though in the days when one-nation Toryism was still thriving, and the Labour-voting working class could just about be understood as a coherent and united political entity, politicians tended to avert their eyes from it. But with all that long gone, the politics of so-called welfare now falls one of two ways: centre-left politicians catch glimpses of public opinion and stay frozen to the spot, while the right endlessly seizes its chance.

This is why Labour politicians are in such contortions about the benefits system, why Ed Miliband’s opposition to the 1% cap on benefit increases was an underrated act of political bravery, and why Labour MPs recently made the infamous decision to abstain when the Commons voted on a bill that will prevent 250,000 people from receiving £130m in rebates, after regulations covering unpaid work experience were judged unlawful by the high court. They are usually terrified, and not without reason.

Any kind of textured conversation has yet to start. No one, on the left or right, has much to say about how distant the benefits system is from our ongoing skills crisis, and the idea that people who cannot find work may well be in need of training and education, rather than incessant nudges towards the bottom of the labour market. The undeveloped idea of a more contributory system is probably the only way out of the mess, and a useful means of highlighting the grimness of what is happening. I have met many victims of the government’s cruelties who have dutifully paid national insurance for most of their adult lives, only to be kicked around beyond endurance – and these voices need to get much louder.

There is still a huge problem with language, and the ubiquity of the hopelessly loaded term “welfare”. Last week the Unite union launched a website called Our Welfare Works, and thus stumbled at the start. Meanwhile, the entry of the church into the debate may or may not mark a watershed point, as we begin to find out whether Duncan Smith has overreached himself. Like the Anglicans, Methodists and the rest, I will be praying he has. But don’t count on it.

John Harris

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