Editorial: When unemployed people are 'shirkers' and disabled people are 'scroungers'


There are people who want most of the cake. No matter how big or small the cake is there are people who think that they and their friends and their children should have most of it. 

In 1942 Sir William Beveridge laid the foundations for the UK Welfare State. The idea was to collect weekly national insurance contributions from everyone in work and use the fund to support sick, widowed, retired, and unemployed people.  I grew up and have lived my life in this Welfare State and it has provided me with a yardstick for social responsibility. If you ask me, 'What is society for?' I have no answer except to say that it is to protect those who are vulnerable and at a disadvantage for some reason, whether  temporarily or permanently. 

A very different mood is prevailing now and the Welfare State has surprisingly quickly become a redundant idea that can be consigned to history. The international banking crisis is certainly a gift to those who want to demolish Beveridge's legacy, but it is not the main driver. 

The real driver is the monstrous realisation that I can have more if you have less. OK, it is just plain greed, but until now it has been curbed by a prevailing sense of fair play and justice.  Not any more: the people who want to grab all material wealth for themselves are dominant. In their pockets they have governments and the media and they are strong enough now to argue that black is white – and to win if you try to argue the case in court. 

Language is all important as we are all massaged into a new way of thinking about how we live and what we value.  History teaches us that when we want to disempower, damage or remove another group of people, the first stage of the campaign is always to describe them in some way as 'not like us', 'not real people', 'not fully human', 'less deserving of a place on the earth'. Witness, for example, Jews under the horrors of Nazism, aboriginals around the world invaded and obliterated by English soldiers and settlers.* 

I have visited many 'long-stay mental handicap hospitals' in the UK (severe institutions that have since been closed by government decree) in which residents, no matter what their actual age, were referred to as 'boys' and 'girls'. This language came from an official attitude about the status of people with learning and other disabilities and helped perpetuate a 'care' system that afforded neither rights nor human dignity to its recipients. 

Sorry if I offend gardeners, but is it not the arbitrary classification of particular healthy and beautiful plants as 'weeds' that frees us up to remove them in any way we like from our garden? 

Language is being manipulated as I write.  UK politicians of all colours are dividing people (us, you and me) into workers or shirkers. The outcome they seek is that the 'workers' will despise the 'shirkers' and want to deprive them of all things good. People who need support from the Welfare State, because of physical or learning disabilities, are now 'scroungers' and 'cheats' and must be pushed to the fringes and allowed to wither. 

Another lesson from history is that the pendulum of opinion swings first to one extreme and then the other.  Opinion in the UK, with England in the lead, is swinging into a place of cruelty, an anti-Beveridge time of survival of the fittest. My generation is bequeathing to the next a less humane world. Beware. Black is becoming white and white, black. There is a juggernaut coming to roll over you if you try to argue.

Peter Limbrick

* The Independent Magazine (UK) of 30th March 2013 reports that the far-right Golden Dawn Party classifies Arab, Asian and African migrants in Greece as 'subhumans'.   

share your information  Cartoon © Martina Jirankova-Limbrick 2011