Friday, 29 May 2015

A Matter of Choice

The Irish literary giant, George Bernard Shaw, wryly observed: “Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always find another Irishman to turn him.” His remark came to mind as Stormont MLAs debated the ill-fated Welfare Reform Bill earlier this week.

The inability of our various politicians to reach agreement on such a crucial issue has exasperated the public. And MLAs’ frustration with each other exploded in sniping recrimination on The Nolan Show the following evening, when even the normally even-tempered Roy Beggs became animated and agitated. The East Londonderry MP and MLA Gregory Campbell put up by far the most impressive performance, jabbing at his nationalist opponents and even locking horns with a woman in the audience. So, how come I’m not convinced by the DUP’s case?

Well, first of all, it’s not the DUP’s case. The DUP voted against the Conservatives’ welfare agenda at Westminster and argued for local mitigating measures in their dealings with the last government. Remarkably, Stormont’s largest party have since become the most vocal cheerleaders for welfare ‘reform’ and, in the process, the debate here has degenerated into one of ‘Orange versus Green’.

The DUP would have us believe their conversion was a matter of realpolitik. This is, we shouldn’t forget, an ideological battle between right and left. But it is also about right and wrong.

What has disappointed me has been the failure of many opponents of the Welfare Reform Bill to present any persuasive case against it. That has resulted in the perverse spectacle of some people – who will quite possibly bear the brunt of George Osborne’s so-called ‘reforms’ – defending his policies.

There is so much wrong with the Tory case that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, the idea of being lectured about fiscal probity and financial rectitude by people who have struggled with their parliamentary expenses beggars belief. 

Those who’ve swallowed the Conservative line have coined a new cliche – the “money-tree” – with which to belittle opponents. Would this be the same money tree, I wonder, which Amazon and Starbucks scrumped off for years? And we’ve had the usual off-stage mutterings from Tory supporters about the “need to live within our means”. These people really should be given a mirror.

Osborne’s brutal assault on welfare is being presented as ‘the only option’ when, in fact, it was – and remains – a choice. It is a very deliberate choice. I can’t make up my mind whether the DUP’s change of heart is a surrender or a genuine conversion.

There is no gainsaying the challenging state of the UK finances. It is true, too, that there is only so much money “in the kitty”. Demand is infinite while resources are finite. But that requires decisions to be made about how those limited resources are to be spent; how outstanding resources – unpaid taxes – are to be collected; which parts of our public services deserve to be protected; and which people should be expected to shoulder the burden.

In a very crude way, the choice is between targeting the rich or the poor.

Osborne has opted for the latter. He has trained his sights on the one million people on zero-hours contracts and the one million who eat out of food banks, rather than on the rich and the mega-rich. People like Harriet Green – the former Thomas Cook boss who will get an estimated £10m bonus this summer – must be laughing all way to the bank. And don’t start me on bankers.

The choice is between targeting those on benefits or those in mansions.

Benefit fraud costs the state about £1.2bn a year (less than the £1.5bn of benefits which go unclaimed by people entitled to them). In the year to April 2013 the ‘tax gap’ – the difference between the estimated tax owed and the amount actually collected – was £34bn. Coincidentally, in 2013 Amazon paid around £4.2m in tax in the UK, despite racking up more than £4bn in sales here.

The choice is between targeting welfare or warfare.

Can a UK – which has to “live within its means” – afford to replace a weapons system it will almost certainly never deploy? The Trident nuclear weapon system will cost an estimated £100bn over 30 years if MPs decide to replace it. One Labour MP has dismissed it as “a useless, hugely expensive virility symbol which will never be used”.

Our hospitals certainly will be used over the next 30 years. So will our schools and universities, our roads and railways. The list goes on. And so will the hardship.

Make no mistake: this debate is about choice. It would have been remarkable if – having campaigned so vigorously against the Tories’ welfare ‘reform’ plans recently – Sinn Féin and the SDLP had then chosen to implement them. Their supporters, and the victims, would have been outraged. Remember what Nelson Mandela said: “Where you stand depends on where you sit”.

With welfare ‘reform’ here paralysed (for the moment), our Executive deadlocked and Stormont in crisis again, the Secretary of State has entered the fray. America fought a revolution over ‘taxation without representation’. Here, we’re going to suffer devastation at the hands of a government whose entire mandate in Northern Ireland could fit comfortably into Windsor Park (even with its reduced capacity).

That’s what I call a democratic deficit. You have to admire Theresa Villiers’ chutzpah, though, coming in to administer Conservative rule in the most Tory-repellent region of the UK.

So what happens next? I haven’t the foggiest idea. We still don’t know the full extent of welfare ‘reform’. That may become clear on July 8th when the Chancellor delivers his emergency budget, with its expected £12bn in additional welfare cuts. The Twelfth week is shaping up to be even more interesting than usual.

With our politicians getting twitchy (an improvement on apoplectic), Mrs Villiers is cautioning against any rush to judgement. We all need to “reflect carefully” on the way forward, she suggests. Will ‘careful reflection’ persuade her to snatch welfare powers back from Stormont, possibly precipitating the collapse of the Stormont institutions? Your guess is as good as mine.

I will leave you with one final thought. Three years after the Second World War had ended – while the UK economy was in severe difficulty and rationing was still in place – the British government founded the National Health Service. There would have been many, I’m sure, who would have counselled against it and claimed it was unaffordable.

On careful reflection, though, it was the right thing to do. Yes it has proved costly (it continues to devour resources), but it has been – and remains – something worth protecting, a price worth paying. Established in the most challenging of times and in the most difficult of circumstances, the NHS was a tangible statement about the kind of society we should aspire to: a compassionate one, a more civilised one, a fairer one.

Hard though it is to believe, right now, we can still achieve that. That’s real aspiration. It’s a matter of choice.

As regards George Bernard Shaw’s spit-roasted Irishman, it would seem that on this occasion – just like ‘The Lady’ – some Irishmen and women are not for turning.     

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