John Bird: Thatcher mangled the benefit ideal. Now the left are her champion

Margaret Thatcher churned out benefits rather than training and opportunity, then Tony Blair took up her lead.

Why do people defend the changes that Margaret Thatcher’s government made to the welfare state as if her modifications were the essence of welfare? To understand this we must separate the welfare state invented in 1948 from the welfare state that was reinvented by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

I find it extraordinary that so many people on the liberal-left of the political spectrum stick religiously to a defence of the distortions that Thatcher brought to the welfare state as if they were the welfare state’s very heart and soul. For in defending the abuses that benefit has been put through, opening the sluice gates, they are defending a Thatcher innovation.

The hater of big government made government bigger in her time in office. The hater of state support closed down the state-supported industries but warehoused many of its former workers on social security. And when asked by Lord Willie Whitelaw, home secretary, what did she intend doing with nearly a million workers, she said: “Let them have benefit.”

Yet now the cul de sac that many of the former industry’s workforce were backed into is defended tooth and nail by many of the left of today. Do they not have a memory? Don’t they know history? Or worst of all – can’t they conceive of how terrible the future is for you and your family on long-term benefit?

If Thatcher was the new inventor of social collapse expressed as benefit, then the ‘child of Thatcher’, Tony Blair, took up her lead. He opened the sluice gates to even more people joining benefit, rather than investing in new working skills creation and education.

And then he did many underpaying employers a great service: rather than legislate and fight and argue for better wages for low-paid workers, he gave them benefit. Or in other words, gave the benefit to the underpaying employers via the wage packets of the underpaid workers.

Can’t they conceive of how terrible the future is for you and your family on long-term benefit?

One of the biggest groups of benefit recipients is the working poor, getting state top-ups. It may well be the only way that some people could actually get into and stay in work but it is worth noting that it is in effect a subsidy, a form of welfare, to underpaying employers. That every time you top up a poor wage you subsidise the small business so that it can make its profits, and presumably spend part of them on themselves.

There may well be an argument for subsidising businesses. There may well be a case for giving benefits to people but surely we must understand that they avoid the major problem. Which is that they are not an investment in the person themselves.

It does not recognise that those caught in low pay and on benefits are being walled off from the chances and opportunity that exist beyond the ghettos of need. They are a denial of the inherent right of all our children to get education and support that enables them to make the most of their intelligence. A right that should not be denied just because mum and dad are on benefits.

I have not seen the big campaigns on the left to bring university education and technological opportunities to those stuck behind the benefit wall. Nor have I seen much reasoning.

The right has played ducks and drakes with our most vulnerable children’s future. Those in need have few true friends. Viewed as members of a different species, they are encouraged by some left-wingers to stay where they are. Whereas the right seem to offer social mobility as a large chunk of wishful thinking.

But let us not lose sight of the fact that we are looking at a benefit system that was not the one invented in 1948 by the post-war Labour government. But one that was changed in order to absorb the effects of Thatcher’s closing down of industrial Britain. Absorbing the workers who were shaken out of industry but not invested in so that they could become skilled in other work.

This is why the left/right argument does not add up in the coming election or any time soon. Why? Because the best intentions of either parties will not make available the kind of money that is necessary to lift some of our citizens out of the limitations placed on them by cheaply paid work or state benefits. And along with a condemning of their children to repeat their parents’ plight.

Is it not a strange world when our left has so uniformly become Thatcherite in defending the ghetto and the suffering caused by benefit-living? While our right seems to be trying to do what the old welfare system was trying to do in its original realisation and that is to get everyone back to work who has a pair of legs, and a stick if they haven’t.

For from 1948 until the 1980s you’d almost have to be dead on your feet before you got any state benefit. But the late Thatcher waved all-comers through, and corrupted the whole process, in the process. That is why we need to change more than the political complexion of the next government.