The Big (Selfish) Society: “Thinking the unthinkable”

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Media & Journalism, The economy

BBC Newsnight last night (9 August) ended with a fascinating, albeit depressing insight into what the Daily Mail reading lower middle classes in Britain are thinking about the impending cuts to welfare and the public sector.  Recently, the consultancy wing of Price Waterhouse Coopers carried out  what the reporter called “an act of corporate citizenship” to find out just how far people think proposed cuts should go. So off they went to Coventry and put together a small focus group – what they labelled a “citizens’ jury” – for a four-day gruel fest of briefings, discussion, feedback sessions and hotel coffee. PWC has done a lot of this kind of stuff for Labour and the Tories in recent years, all closely followed and taken seriously by BBC Newsnight. I’ll comment on the methodology later but first the results.

The focus group  first concluded that unemployment and housing benefits should be slashed to such an extent that recipients would have no choice but to get out of the house and get a job. Why, asked one young woman, should “decent hard-working tax-payers” subsidise these people? (Google this phrase for a tickle and get stuff like this). 

Child benefits should also be cut. People shouldn’t be paid to raise a family – and if they can’t afford it, they shouldn’t have children! Indeed, said the reporter, the group dared to “think the unthinkable” and suggest that child benefit should no longer be universal but means tested. Why should wealthy families be given child benefits as an automatic right? It’s just pocket money to most of them. And as for international development aid!! The “citizens jury” agreed that CamClegg Inc is wrong to protect aid from cuts. In these tough times for decent hard-working taxpayers, the poor of the world will just have to do without and maybe look after themselves for a change.

Now, if you have a left wing neuron in your brain at all, you’ll see what’s going on here. This little focus group was typical of the demographic that political parties have been tapping into for years now. It’s the conservative, working class and lower middle classes whose consent is crucial to the implementation of the neo-liberal project to downsize the state in the interests of the market; people who simmer with sullen resentment that they are being unfairly squeezed by the filthy rich from above and the lumpen proletariat from below. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t suggest cuts they thought might directly affect them. They were keen to insist that the government should ring fence spending on their education and their NHS.

We can’t of course take the results of this experiment in “corporate citizenship” as a snap shot of wider public opinion: it was neither scientific nor representative in its methodology and probably wasn’t intended to be. The focus group was selected from this narrow demographic and subjected to a series of presentations setting out the parameters of government thinking before convening to discuss them and respond.  It was hardly a surprise, then, that they all responded in one mind. In that light, I suspect it was a kite-flying exercise on behalf of CamClegg Inc – designed to test how their typical target voters might react to the impending cuts. Indeed, who should turn up for a summary feedback session at the end but Lib Dem, Danny Alexander, Treasury Chief Secretary and hatchet man.

So while we can’t draw any conclusions from the exercise about what the wider population is thinking and how they will respond, what strikes you about its results (and what the reporter seemed to miss) is the vision of Britain that it projects. Ultimately it’s a selfish society stripped of the welfare state, dominated by corporate interests and the free market, and dependent upon voluntarism and altruism from individuals tutored in selfishness by neo-liberal propaganda. Of course, it’s also an exclusive society. No worries about the very wealthy – they’ve always looked after themselves anyway. As for the poor on social welfare, they’ve been mollycoddled enough at the expense of the decent-hardworking- taxpayers of Britain. In short, then, it’s the Big Selfish Society for the lower middle class, Daily Mail reading, Tory/Lib Dem/New Labour voter. It’s Middle Britain by another name.

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