United Kingdom

Thatcher's Therapeutic State?

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I had an interesting conversation with a British journalist once about whether it was better to describe Margaret Thatcher's economic views as anti-state or anti-union. That old chat came back to mind when I read the maverick Marxist Brendan O'Neill's argument that welfare payments were a weapon of sorts in the battle against labor militants:

The welfare state, still so beloved of many left-wing radicals, has cynically redefined huge swathes of the British population as sick rather than unemployed. As one striking study points out, in the last 20 years of the twentieth century, from 1981 to 1999, the number of individuals of working age in Britain—mostly men aged 16 to 64—who were claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB) rose exponentially. IB is the social security benefit paid to individuals who are 'unable to work because of ill-health, injury or disability'. In April 1981, 463,000 men of working age were receiving IB; by April 1999, that had risen to 1,276,000. It rose every single year between 1981 and 1999, apart from 1997. In addition, 710,000 women were receiving IB, meaning that at the start of the new millennium, more than two million people of working-age in Britain were defined as 'unable to work.'

As the authors of the study point out, this increase in 'incapable' people was not linked to real health problems; 'the general standard of health in the population is known to be improving.' Rather, the rise and rise of the incapacity category from the 1980s to today has occurred in tandem with the routing of trade union militancy by the Thatcher government, the demise of working-class politics, and the subsequent treatment of the unemployed as objects of pity rather than potential fury….

Many claim that successive governments cynically ratcheted up the IB numbers in order to make the overall unemployment figures look better (IB claimants are not officially counted as unemployed). No doubt there's some truth in that, but more fundamentally the redefinition of much unemployment as incapacity spoke to a shift in the balance of power between organisations that represented workers and the state, and to the demise of class politics and its replacement by new therapeutic relations between the state and the individual. Increasingly, individuals, especially in collapsed industrial towns or areas of poverty, are actively invited by the welfare state to define themselves as pathetic and useless and unable to exist without financial and emotional handouts.

The study he's citing is "Incapacity Benefit and unemployment," by Christina Beatty and Stephen Fothergill, published in Work to Welfare: How Men Become Detached from the Labour Market (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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  1. I prefer that author to the average Marxist, or the average Democrat for that matter.

  2. Frank -n- Weiner | June 25, 2009, 2:05pm | #

    @joe from Lowell

    If you’re really joe, we’ve got some Obama questions for ya. Why not stick around…
    joe from Lowell | June 25, 2009, 2:07pm | #

    Now, be polite. I didn’t come here and jack the thread, so don’t you jack the thread, either.

  3. therapeutic relations between the state and the individual.

    As if unions somehow aren’t in the business of forcing theraputic relations between the employer and the employee.

    Unions begged for government to back them up and government wound up taking over the unions’ mission. That’s the nature of government, not of any particular “wing”.

  4. What the hell?

    It’s typical that he’d find a way to blame Lady Thatcher for problems that the Economic Left created in the first place.

  5. Step 1: Destroy Unions
    Step 2: ???
    Step 3: Welfare State

  6. Except the Welfare state was first proposed in the UK in 1912. Thatcher did not create the Welfare state.

    Lady Thatcher’s attack against Unions was to be followed by an attack against the idea behind the Welfare state itself. It might have culminated in the dismantling of the Welfare state, had she not been removed from power in 1991.

    Americans need to understand the meaning of a multi-step plan. It is possible for Thatcherists to hate BOTH the Unions and the Welfare State. We were unable to attack both of them head-on at the same time.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/simonheffer/5237817/You-had-to-be-there-to-grasp-the-scale-of-Margaret-Thatchers-revolution.html

  7. Except the Welfare state was first proposed in the UK in 1912. Thatcher did not create the Welfare state.

    I don’t think O’Neill claimed she did. He’s claiming that IB payments grew during and after her term of office (which seems to be true), and that they in effect bought off people who otherwise might have been unionists (which is an interesting hypothesis).

    Lady Thatcher’s attack against Unions was to be followed by an attack against the idea behind the Welfare state itself. It might have culminated in the dismantling of the Welfare state, had she not been removed from power in 1991.

    Maybe, but the fact remains that not just IB payouts but public spending in general were higher at the end of her term than at the beginning.

  8. Rather, the rise and rise of the incapacity category from the 1980s to today has occurred in tandem with the routing of trade union militancy by the Thatcher government, the demise of working-class politics, and the subsequent treatment of the unemployed as objects of pity rather than potential fury….

    It also occurred in tandem with the rise of the personal computer, but that doesn’t mean one caused the other.

    This is an example of a theory so silly that only an intellectual would believe it. It couldn’t simply be that large numbers of people discovered that getting IB was easier and less work than getting unemployment? That someone sees their neighbor with the “bad back” is now basically retired at public expense, so they say “Hey, I could do that, too”?

  9. Maybe his theory is that the unions would police frivolous disability claims, to prevent their members from leaving their ranks to retire on disability.

    Can’t you just see a couple of union “stewards” visiting someone who filed for disability? “Shame about your back, there. But if we’re going to let you leave our local, retire on disability, and stop paying dues, we’re going to have to make sure, real sure, that you’re hurt bad, real bad.”

  10. This is an example of a theory so silly that only an intellectual would believe it. It couldn’t simply be that large numbers of people discovered that getting IB was easier and less work than getting unemployment? That someone sees their neighbor with the “bad back” is now basically retired at public expense, so they say “Hey, I could do that, too”?

    I think the author realizes full well that’s what happened, and doesn’t claim otherwise. The question is, why was it easier to get IB than to get unemployment? The author’s contention is that a deliberate move on the part of the Thatcher government made it the case. I can’t speak to whether or not this is true, but it’s not as on-the-face-of-it silly as you make it out to be.

  11. I find it hard to believe this was a deliberate policy of the Thatcher government for several reasons:

    1) I doubt they (or anyone) had or has full control of the gigantic bureaucratic monstrosity that is the NHS.

    2) It doesn’t sound like Thatcher. It would not only be totally cynical, but be against the sort of things she fought for. Do you really believe she would want healthy people shirking on IB, forever, instead of on unemployment where they might get work, just to lower unemployment figures?

    3) It’s a lot easier to believe this has to do with the inevitable scamming that goes along with such safety nets, which tends to grow over time if not checked, with the general socialist wussification of the UK, and related things. E.g.: I’d bet that the number of immigrants on IB has skyrocketed over that period of time.

  12. One more factor: the current IB is very close to what one can make on the minimum wage. Was it lower decades ago?

  13. Jesse Walker,

    Well, the question is, did they grow at a higher rate from her time in office forward as opposed to time before she came into office? The real cradle to grave polices started to my knowledge in 1946, so that’s when would start measuring.

    Anyway, it isn’t shocking that this would be the result of welfare policies; but I would argue that it was an unintended and probably wholely unexpected (by the policy makers) consequence.

  14. Am I the only one that finds the mobbed-up stereotype of unions a bit stale?

  15. I’ve been encouraged by the bureaucracy to apply for disability on the basis of my having had a heart attack 3 YA. I don’t know if I could get enough that way to live independently rather than be institutionalized. My problem is that I’m highly qualified but seem unable to get work commensurate with my scientific training that will pay my expenses, and overqualified to get anything else that will pay my expenses and that I can do in the long run.

  16. The UK remains a disaster area. I know of quite a number of perfectly intelligent and capable (not to mention healthy) people on incapacity benefit. It’s hard to get them grasp that, if nothing else, they have put themselves at the mercy of the state.

    As to Margaret Thatcher, back in the 1980s, she set up The Enterprise Scheme, which gave anyone on the dole a weekly allowance to help them set up their own business. She was encouraging entrepreneurship amongst the unemployed of the time.

    Admittedly, some used the Enterprise Scheme as a year long “break” from the dole. But generally it promoted the idea that it is possible to be self-employed or set up a firm. And that this is an admirable course. Not easy, but commendable.

    And Margaret Thatcher stood for this. She became the symbol for self-reliance and “going it alone” without the cushioning of a job and being a wage stiff.

    I’m pretty certain she would not have encouraged floundering listlessly on incapacity benefit.

    The truth is, Britain today needs another figurehead of her caliber. As it is we’re bailing out banks and the national debt is out of control.

    No one is upholding the idea of the entrepreneur. Yet this is exactly what people on incapacity benefit need to see. Margaret Thatcher held that up as a torch in the 1980s. It was an inspiration in many ways.

  17. Margaret Thacher empowered the State, the ruling elites and in-back oligrachy. The free market with no state intervention at all was never implimented, see the free book available on line “The Conservertive Nanny State”

    http://www.conservativenannystate.org/

    The State whether left, right or centre always empowers itself and keeps the elites in power.

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