Monday, 25 June 2012

A Culture of Entitlement?

2012 feels like a significant time to be questioning where England is going. On the day David Cameron announces huge shake ups to the benefits system; in a summer where we saw hundreds of thousands of union flags waved obediently at the Queen; and in the lead up to the Olympics – already dubbed a summer of global importance, in which the world will be watching Britain – all I have to say is this: how am I meant to feel about this baffled Britain, with its polarising extremities: its pomp and tradition; its history and heritage; its millionaires and  its homeless; its enormous youth unemployment and identikit town centres?

David Cameron has came out today and said that “For literally millions, the passage to independence is several years living in their childhood bedroom as they save up to move out; while for many others, it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.” Cameron fails to realise that the issue is much more complex than that. I, for example, could be said to fit into both of those categories, the latter very unwittingly. While I accept that I am in a fortunate position to be able to retreat to my childhood bedroom to begin saving up to move out, I resent that what Cameron seems to be implying is that there are only two types of benefit claimant – those lower to upper-middle class young graduates who haven’t managed to get onto the career ladder, and those who, apparently, have never had any intention of doing so. He also, evidently, has never been to a job centre. As a new claimant, I understand that when we strip away social prejudices, there isn’t much separating me, the 24 year old graduate, and the 17 year old with no GCSEs. Both of us can, if we wish, make a mockery of the system, filling out a load of tripe on our jobseekers’ diaries to still receive 50 odd quid a week for the privilege. When he added to his concerns on the ‘culture of entitlement’, stating that those who have not found work after two or more years on benefits will be made to conduct some kind of “compulsory community work, such as tidying a park”, I really began to wince. The suggestion is simple: if I’m not putting money into the economy, I can’t possibly be ‘helping my community’, so I should take a minimum wage job and just get on with it. We are, at the end of the day, all in this together, aren’t we?

Here we reach my main gripe, not only with Cameron or his Con-Dem Coalition, but with the most alienating of all aspects of mainstream politics as I have seen them over the past 15 years: the belief that every other aspect of a fulfilled lifestyle is inexorably linked to the success of the economy. There was a time, during the lead-up to the last election, when David Cameron’s Big Society looked quite promising. His support for bottom-up, community driven entrepreneurial projects and social development schemes seemed genuine. Then he totally undermined himself and those schemes by taking a chainsaw to most of the basic infrastructures that are crucial to their operation, such as libraries and arts funding. Finally, he did a Bill Clinton crossed with an Ostrich, nose-diving his face into the sand known as it’s the economy, stupid.  

If we were expecting this situation to present the other major political parties with an opportunity to challenge Cameron’s faith in the economy, then we were wrong. Stephen Timms, the Labour MP and shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, has said that despite the rows over the budget reforms within the coalition, what they [Clegg-ron] should actually be concentrating on  is “get[ting] growth back into the economy”. I’m sorry, but does this not sound like an echo of David Cameron [discussing the Euro Zone]: “We need to get really serious about growth.” He’s serious, you know. Tell that to the people in the job centre. Wait, you mean they already do? Oh, and it’s not working? Ah. Yes. We’re back to my main point: all of these policies and suggested reforms and arguing are irrelevant when the bigger issue is taken into consideration: the economic system as we know it is fucked. I’m not talking as a banker, politician or wannabe broadsheet columnist when I say that, either. What I’m saying is it hasn’t worked for some time; its aims and objectives are rooted in the past, when there were less people, more resources and a more secure climate. As someone born in 1988, the vast majority of my life, right up until the financial crisis, was lived amidst the abundance of this capitalist system working, more or less without a hitch. I have known wealth and I was promised it would always be there, but I know it won’t. The vast majority of politicians pray at the altar of GDP to the Gods of the economy, but those Gods have abandoned us, and the sooner we realise that’s the case, the better. If Cameron is serious about appealing to the hard-working British families who are resenting those who believe they should get the world on a plate for nothing, he needs to realise that the solution, in the main, no longer lies in propping up a system which bottomed-out several years ago. We need real community investment, real equality and fairness and realistic ambitions to strive for – for the sake of ourselves and future generations. What  we don’t need is a man who’s never had to go into a Job Centre telling us how and where to start creating those things.

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