Bernard Ingham: Chancellor puts his faith in humans’ better nature

Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne
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BEFORE Chancellor George Osborne stands up today to deliver his emergency Budget, let’s get one thing straight. It is not primarily about figures. It is about human nature.

Of course, the numbers matter. That is inescapable with a budget deficit of around £75bn. But the key point is what partly lies behind our living on tick. And that will make this Budget an intensely political event – it will expose the ideological divide between the Tories and virtually every other party in the Commons.

Because Labour (and especially the Scottish Nationalists) believe in the big state, and the Tories a small one, those on the political left – and not least Jeremy Corbyn, the unreconstructed socialist candidate vying for Labour’s leadership – will parade their consciences over cuts in spending.

They overdo their compassion, which is financed by the taxpayer. There is not a blade of grass between the parties over concern for the vulnerable and deserving. The issue is how best to look after them and that takes me back to human nature – it is the same the world over. Generally, people don’t look a gift horse in the mouth any more than turkeys vote for Christmas. The result has been the growth of the welfare state, which does not always seem to be using our money to good effect.

The result is a benefits industry that makes it difficult to cut the £220bn welfare bill – something the Tories have been trying to do for five years in the face of pious Liberal Democrat resistance.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has had a go, apparently with some success, but today comes the crunch. The Chancellor wants to slash the welfare bill by about £12bn.

Leave aside our financial position, testimony from Scandinavia – that supposed paradise of social provision – explains why it is necessary in human terms.

A survey by a Swedish researcher, published by the Institute for Economic Affairs, shows that when Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland embraced the expensive UK/European brand of social democracy they soon went wrong.

A high-tax-high-spend policy quickly eroded incentives and the Nordics’ strong work ethic. Today 44 per cent believe it is fine to claim sickness benefits if you are dissatisfied with your working environment. In Sweden 82 per cent agreed in 1981-84 that “claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled is never justifiable”. Now the figure is down to 55 per cent.

All this comes with news from the OECD that the employment rate for male workers from overseas has overtaken that of native Britons.

This is not perhaps surprising when we hear of employers who have difficulty recruiting Brits.

In short, like the Scandinavians, we have taken a wrong turning. And, like the Scandinavians, the Chancellor is trying to reverse the decline without much help across the political spectrum.

Nobody wants to deny those in need of the safety net that the 1940s welfare revolution was intended to provide. But we clearly should end the belief that the world owes everyone a living and the readiness of too many, not least single parents, to live at their neighbour’s expense.

It is anti-social, wasteful, saps the moral fibre and robs people of self-respect.

We all have a responsibility to look after ourselves and our families. We also have a responsibility to our neighbours. That has been eroded by the mobility of the population and the break-up of communities and families as well as the “I’m all right Jack” attitude.

Yet, with a few weeks’ research, local authorities could know precisely where every vulnerable person lives and organise for a close neighbour and official eye to be kept on them. Tragically, they don’t seem to know where they are now, given the rise in lonely deaths, leaving the council to bury them – when their bodies are found.

Neighbours do want to help. One of mine, who I had not known existed for nine years, visited me recently to offer help after what he thought had been a burglary at my home. Actually, it was next door where a 97-year-old widower lives alone. Fortunately, he is okay and the suspects await trial.

Looking at it another way, it is encouraging that, given all the temptations of welfare, how relatively few people take advantage of the system.

But the bill is far too much for George Osborne, who must get Britain solvent again. He will no doubt be vilified today for trying to lead human nature in the ways of work, effort, growth and self-responsibility. It is the fate of all reformers.