George Osborne's savage attack on benefits is an affront to British decency
By Will Hutton -not generally regarded as far-left:
What constitutes a good society? What are our responsibilities and obligations to one another? To what extent is our humanity about looking solely after ourselves or being part of something we call society? The autumn statement, opening a new chapter in its rewriting of Britain's tattered social settlement, has suddenly made these the fundamental questions in British politics. The last vestiges of an approach to organising society based on a social contract have been shredded. In its place there is an emergent system of discretionary poor relief imposed from on high in which every claimant is defined not as a citizen exercising an entitlement because they have hit one of life's many hazards, but as a dependent shirker or scrounger.
David Cameron and George Osborne, repudiating the canons of the Enlightenment, the New Testament and the British commitment to fair play, think they are on a political slam dunk. Osborne gloried in his depiction of his actions in support of the nation's "strivers" and attack on the shirkers. With a populist centre-right press behind him, he thinks he has launched a political masterstroke. Does the Labour party dare to vote against next year's proposed welfare bill removing the link between inflation and the increase in benefits?...
Austerity must hit everyone. The welfare system, so the argument goes, has become a colossal scam encouraging systematic cheating and, worse, a culture in which idleness is rewarded and work penalised. What is more, support for social solidarity as a principle is disappearing. Polls reveal large majorities who support the coalition's propositions.
But can so much of our culture, and what it means to be part of western civilisation, be put aside so easily? The idea that the best society is one organised around a voluntarily agreed contract between its members who come together and acknowledge reciprocal obligations is not so lightly torched. It may be unfashionable to defend the conception of a social contract, but our religion and our culture enshrine the notion of mutual responsibility and obligation.