This will be my 100th post since starting this blog just over 2 years ago. There is only one issue which I can properly address today – the rioting which we saw in our major cities some 10 days ago. It has led to some fairly apocalyptic comments over the past few days, warning us of the impending breakdown of civilization. Coupled with the financial problems we have been seeing, we could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that perhaps, after all, we are all going to hell in a handbasket. But I would like to think that we really do not need to be so pessimistic, provided we are prepared to take some difficult decisions.
There has always been an underclass in British society, a group of people unwilling to work and living in, or at the edges of, criminality. Read the novels of Dickens if you are in any doubt about that. If you lived in the Rookeries of London, you were largely out of touch with any form of law or civilisation known to the world outside. The only difference between then and now is that there are now far more people living in idleness or on the edges of criminality than there were in the Victorian period.
The root causes of the increase are the state of our education system, the impact of the prevailing leftist ideology of moral relativism, and the present system of benefits. The abolition of the grammar schools removed the best route out of poverty for the clever child with few advantages. The percentage of state school entrants to Oxford and Cambridge is worse than it was in the 1960s, despite those universities spending thousands on outreach programmes. The drift towards child centred “learning” rather than an emphasis on reading, writing and numeracy has left us with a large number of school leavers who are functionally illiterate, with a reading age at 16 of only 7. These people are of little use in a world where there are few jobs available for those who cannot read or write properly. Even the less academically able had a basic level of literacy far higher than obtains today.
There is no prospect of turning the clock back to before the time of the “permissive society” and in any event I am of the view that the state has little role in regulating private morality. However the unwanted side effect of social liberalism has been an almost complete breakdown in respect for the institutions of this country. Admittedly, many MPs, clergymen, policeman and even members of the Royal Family have contributed to this, but there seems to be little residual respect for the institutions themselves, which nonetheless still have a vital role to play in our society. Parliament, the Churches, the police forces, and all such bodies need to take a long look at themselves and ask how they can regain that trust.
Our welfare state was designed to combat the threat of poverty and the misery caused by lack of the reasonable resources required for life. The problem now is that the marginal difference between the income available to someone on benefits and the income which can be obtained from a job on minimum wage is so small that there is not enough of an incentive to force people to choose work over a life on benefits. The phrase “only fools and horses work” is no joke in some parts of society.
I doubt that there is any prospect of increasing wages at the bottom end in the short term. The economy would not stand a significant increase in the minimum wage, even if its effects were mitigated by some form of tax relief for those taking on new employees. The answer lies in a root and branch reform of the benefits system. It is essential that choosing to work pays far higher dividends than staying on benefit. It cannot be impossible for some portion of the budget currently devoted to paying benefits to be channelled instead into a distinct incentive to taking up employment or training.
David Cameron now has the perfect opportunity to let Iain Duncan Smith off the leash. There is a public appetite for benefits reform – even if it has been couched in somewhat crude terms. He will never have a better opportunity.