Tony Blair has chosen to speak out on the moral crisis of the welfare state but he may have raised expectations that he cannot fulfil. Roderick Nye considers the trouble aheadby Roderick Nye / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
When Tony Blair chose welfare reform as the subject for his first big speech as prime minister-outlining his “will to win” for single parents and the longterm unemployed-he was signalling a decisive break with the recent past both of his party and his country.
Labour has chosen welfare reform as its first big idea because it appeals to those who, in the words of Blair borrowed from Bill Clinton, “work hard and play by the rules.” Stating that you cannot take out what you do not put in is aimed as much at taxpayers as at clai-mants, because Blair knows that restoring confidence in the welfare state is good politics as well as sound economics.
It is also the essence of what is supposed to make New Labour, “new.” A willingness to talk about fundamental reform of welfare means breaking with the moral relativism which dogged Labour for much of the postwar era, and which disconnected it from ordinary voters throughout the 1980s.
As Blair and the minister for welfare reform Frank Field both know, the call for more self-help and the rise of a new generation of “social entrepreneurs” also conjures up a much older brand of friendly society socialism. Welfare reform involves Labour going back to its own basics and offers a showcase for what Blair has called “traditional values in a modern setting.”
Judging by the reaction to his speech, the prime minister has achieved his immediate political objective. He has succeeded in setting the stage for a programme of reforming social security without, as yet, having to announce the details. The question is: does ending the “dependency culture” mean anything more than inviting single parents to job centres for a cup of tea and a chat about their career prospects?
Optimists argue that it does. They say that Blair’s speech was simply the first stage, a necessary softening up exercise. The appointment of Frank Field, whose views on remoralising welfare are well known, and Martin Taylor of Barclays Bank, who will attempt to fuse together taxes and benefits, are seen as signs of the prime minister’s ultimate ambitions. From now on, political objectives will determine the shape of the social security system, not the other way round. This is a long way from post-ideology, where what counts is what works.
It is also a distinctly American theme, picked up in a recent Social Market Foundation…