Saturday, November 27, 2010


British Attitudes to Work Midway Between Europe and USA

Bagehot in The Economist is always worth a careful read and the week before last he (I think it's a 'he') addressed the subject of the British and work. Bagehot points out that the great social reformer, William Beveridge, while passionate about relieving suffering, was also very tough on those who refused to play according to the rules, proposing in 1942 'compulsory training camps' for the welfare state's malingerers.

As his biographer Jose Harris records, he was unconvinced by talk of a British work ethic, declaring the idealisation of “useful toil” a trick of the upper classes to promote industry among the lower classes. The poor had no moral duty to work, he argued: it was for officials to design a system that demonstrably rewarded work.

Precisely where to place assistance so that it does not encourage idleness, is a crucial calculation for Conservatives who tend to doubt the commitment to work of benefit recipients. Iain Duncan Smith(IDS) is suggesting that those on benefits who clearly refuse work should lose some of their benefits for up to three years. The number of jobless on benefits is indeed, worryingly high: 1.4 million have spent nine of the last ten years on unemployment benefit. IDS has called it a it a:

“sin” that millions of jobs had been taken by foreigners under the previous Labour government, because Britons were not “capable or able” to do so.

Bagehot quotes fascinating survey figures on British attitudes to work. UK respondents to the International Social Survey Programme registered the lowest rating of all national groups for, 'commitment to work for its own sake'. But in addition to this, British responses to a recent Pew survey suggested we think poverty is caused by laziness, with a penchant for blaming immigration as well. Indeed:

The same survey shows the British to be less convinced than any other nation in the European Union that poverty can be tackled with increased social benefits; they prefer to offer the poor work, training and regeneration schemes..

Like the Americans, moreover, we tended to answer that 'success in life' is down to our own efforts and not to 'forces outside our control', a solution favoured by the French, Germans Italians and Spanish.

It is hard to avoid Bagehot's somewhat contradictory conclusion that we 'don't much like work, but like the work shy even less.'

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