The ideas behind Government policy

By Bernadette Meaden
June 25, 2012

At times the government’s approach to the poor and disadvantaged seems baffling, their reasoning tortured. Take child poverty for instance: recently Ian Duncan Smith and his supporters in the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) declared that child poverty was not a matter of low parental incomes. They blurred the distinction between poverty, which is undeniably a lack of money, and child neglect, which is another matter entirely.

The government also seems to be in denial about the working poor, maintaining that work is the answer to poverty, consistently ignoring poverty wages. This has been highlighted by the churches among others.

Now, very belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the CSJ that there is a massive hole in their analysis of child poverty. But whether this admission will feed through to the government and lead to a change in the policies founded on these mistaken assumptions remains to be seen.

Such perversity, such a difficulty in accepting undeniable evidence, is perplexing. But if one looks at the bigger picture, the Conservative party’s ‘blue-sky thinking’, and the type of country they would like to create, all becomes clear.

A key to understanding this is to look not at their manifesto, which is in effect a sales pitch to the voter. The key is to look at the thinkers and organisations which influence them. Several right-wing think tanks lay claim to substantial influence, including the Centre for Policy Studies, Policy Exchange, the Taxpayer’s Alliance and Direct Democracy. What they often share, amongst other things, is nostalgia for a time before the Welfare State and the NHS: Douglas Carswell MP of Direct Democracy even speaks wistfully of the vagrancy laws prior to the 1911 Liberal reforms.

But perhaps most influential is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), credited with providing Mrs Thatcher with many of her policies, and which is dedicated to ‘expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.’

The IEA document Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big Steps to a Smaller State’ published last year, ‘examines every aspect of government spending and offers a fundamental rethink of the role and scope of the state, providing solutions which would see increased economic growth and radically reduced spending levels.’

This involves making some truly massive spending cuts. But all of these proposals are seen as desirable policy options, not regrettable necessities forced on the government by economic circumstances. Perhaps that should be borne in mind next time the Prime Minister talks about making "difficult decisions".

Proposals include, on health, ‘ develop a radically new health policy based on Health Savings Accounts. This would lead to better health outcomes and restore consumer sovereignty, innovation and competition – which were, before the creation of the NHS, widely admired aspects of UK health provision’ Ah yes, the good old days, before the NHS. The IEA recently hosted a seminar, ‘Should we abolish the NHS?’

The IEA is keen on abolishing things; in its section on the elderly it says plainly, ‘We propose that many of the benefits currently given to old people are abolished’.

It also proposes the abolition of many taxes, including stamp duty on property and shares, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, the bank levy, climate change levy, and Vehicle Excise Duty. This, they say, would enable income tax to be reduced to 15 per cent, which would admittedly benefit every taxpayer, but would surely benefit the rich far more than the poor.

On education the IEA says, "An even more fundamental reform would be to move back towards a system where all parents (except the very poor) made a financial contribution to schooling, as they did in the nineteenth century." They believe £1,000 a year would be reasonable.

As for the Benefits system, the IEA advocates Workfare for the unemployed, and is particularly keen on the system used in Wisconsin, USA. This is portrayed as simple fairness, a ‘something for something’ system, but as large profitable companies make use of the free labour on offer, it begins to look rather ugly. As Warren Clarke writes in the New Internationalist, "Neoliberal governments and the workfare industry are actively intervening to restructure the labour market by suppressing wages and increasing the pressure on people to accept low-paid work."

The document does contain some good ideas. On Defence, it says, ‘the strategy of using military power to enhance Britain’s prestige should be abandoned…. the nuclear deterrent should be eliminated.’ This is an idea that the government shows no sign of warming towards.

As for publicly-owned assets, the IEA is keen on privatising almost everything, including the road network.

On the whole, the vision of Britain set out in this document may be, to a strong, healthy, prosperous person, rather attractive. For many who are poor, old, ill or disabled, the vision is unsettling and quite frightening. As the super-rich flock to Britain and some affected by benefit changes consider suicide, perhaps that vision is becoming a reality.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.