Sunday 14 April 2013

On community spirits and Thatcher's legacy

With the funeral of Baroness Thatcher getting closer, the country seems to hark back to the times of division and hatred. I wont wade into the debate whether Thatcher did more good than bad (or vice versa) but instead would like to impart a brief observation. Reading the obituaries (reverent and irreverent ones) I noticed that some attributed the loss of community spirit to her policies. 

This reminded me of the nostalgia for socialism and its ‘collective spirits’ shared by many in the former communist countries where democracy and freedom have allegedly brought about the demise of the feelings of friendship and mutual support. However, I cant help but wonder about the conspicuous lack of strength in those communities if they only existed in the good times. If Thatcher wrought so much misery on these communities, wouldn’t her time in government increase the strength of those community spirits, rather than bring about their decline? 

Happy times?

It seems that, after all, those communities were not so much cultivating the spirits of mutual support, but fostering a sense of exclusivity, where individuals had to submit to the rule of the collective. In this sense, perhaps the decline of the community spirits heralded the inevitable rise of individuality and personal freedom. Clearly, as some ‘communities’ imploded under Thatcher, people had to re-forge the foundations of society anew, a laborious and challenging process. Yet the product was not atomism, as some commentators have written. It was individual liberty realised, as Hegel would have said.

Monday 8 April 2013

Baroness Margaret Thatcher - RIP

The death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher has just been announced. She will undoubtedly leave an enormous gap in British public life. Her contribution to British politics has been huge. She also worked tirelessly to bring down the Iron Wall in Europe. Her efforts to defeat socialism in Eastern Europe will never be forgotten.

Coming from a humble family she fought British establishment, even and especially in her own party, radiating a confident belief in herself and her powers. She changed the face of Britain for the better and will be missed.

Monday 1 April 2013

Welfare - the ship is turning ... slowly

Today some of the most radical changes to the welfare system in Britain come into force. They are the culmination of long and arduous efforts by Ian Duncan Smith, the Welfare and Pension Seretary, who tirelessly worked for more than 8 years to find a way to reform the system. While in opposition, IDS worked with politicians from all sides of the political spectrum to identify the problems of the welfare system and create broad support for his reforms. Being appointed Welfare Secretary in 2010, he set about to reform one of the most convoluted and complex benefits systems in the developed world. The challenge was enormous. The previous Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown had introduced tax credits to working families which meant that billions of pounds of public money were spent on propping up the income of families who were actually in work but not receiving sufficient income to sustain their lives. It effectively trapped people in low paid, part time work while the taxpayer topped up the wages of those hardworking families. For those out of work, there was little meaningful support, and, in some areas, generations of families live on welfare benefits.

Perhaps the most effective Welfare Secretary of post-war Britain?

The biggest challenge for IDS however was how to sell this reform to the public. Previous reforms in other countries, though successful, like in Germany under Chancellor Schroeder (a Social Democrat) proved to be deeply unpopular. IDS early on distanced himself from value-laden language and honed in rhetorically on the problem of 'making work pay', i.e. to create a differential between benefits payments and work related wages. In effect, his reforms were tackling the incentive structure for work.

In an interview this morning with John Humphreys from the BBC, he robustly defended the benefits changes (the full interview HERE). Humphreys intoned about the immoral effect of benefits changes but IDS pointed out that the effects of benefits changes will be to improve the situation of those out of work in the long term. He thereby found a way to reject the 'moral outrage' of those on the left and in the Church establishment, while using their language to defend the reforms. This two-pronged approach, appealing to the sensible majority by emphasising the incentive structure of the reforms, and pointing to the ethical underpinning of the changes, makes his reforms uniquely likely to succeed. Over the years, despite a merciless onslaught from some of the left, he never used disparaging language about those people at the bottom of society but spoke clearly of the need to give them the right support. He might just turn out to be one of the most effective welfare secretaries of post-war Britain.