The debate on how to fix Britain’s ailing welfare system has started—and stalled. When we ran our landmark cover story “The End of Welfare?” just over a year ago, the question was taboo in Westminster. Our widely-quoted polls, conducted by Peter Kellner of YouGov, which showed a collapse in public support for the existing system of benefits, helped ignite a vocal debate which has grown louder ever since.
There is growing public support for a step back towards a “contributory principle”—the notion that the benefits you get are at least partly related to what you pay in (see Philip Collins, £). That was, after all, William Beveridge’s starting principle 70 years ago in devising a welfare state. Those who trouble to calculate the implications of Britain’s ageing population for the costs of the state pension and National Health Service in the coming decades tend to become rapid converts, too.
It would be wrong to take that clamour, easily swelled by exaggerated fears about the impact of immigration, or of a supposed widespread culture of “shirkers,” as the polished script for reform. One of the principles of Britain’s welfare is, and must remain, that it protects people who are really in need—not least those who may never be able to “contribute.” At the same time, that strength of public feeling springs from an interpretation of fairness that politicians would be wrong, as well as foolish, to ignore.
All parties have given a nod towards the notion that a system where contribution played at least a slightly larger part would be desirable. But they have all been incoherent. The Conservatives say they want more contributions, to increase incentives to work, but have gone in the opposite direction through means testing, although they have injected a handful of new limits. Labour has tangled itself up in its desire also to use the benefits system to pursue social equality, a tale that Frank Field, at one time charged with drawing up that strategy, retells (£) with justified frustration. The LibDems have been diverted by their preoccupation with taxing assets of the wealthy, including pensioners, and their prescription that the projected rising costs of public spending should be paid by higher taxes. Ukip (see Ed Docx’s walkabout with Nigel Farage), complaining that UK benefits are too attractive to migrants, has missed a trick; it could have called for them to echo the contributory principles in much of the European Union, to reduce their supposed magnetic pull. All parties recoil, too, from the knowledge that the change would initially cost more, a real hurdle given the UK’s peculiar difficulties in emerging from recession (see David Hale, £).
The harshness of some of the public clamour is unattractive—and unhelpful. But one of the themes sounding loudly through British politics after five years of austerity is that those who benefit from society should, if they can, contribute. That is, after all, why the campaign against corporate tax avoidance (Paul Collier) has won such surprising traction ahead of the G8 summit. In this debate, politicians risk being left behind the public.