Will welfare reform result in a ‘two nation’ society?

As David Cameron makes a U-turn on cigarette packaging and George Osborne finally understands government does sometimes need to intervene in the free market will others follow?

Our ability as an individual to stand against the power of big business is limited to say the least, however, some on the Tory right still expect individuals to form a ‘government of self’ and develop individualised systems of social protection (via ‘big society’). Such personal independence is beyond the reach of many.

However, David Cameron and George Osborne appear to have finally grasped that for ‘big society’ to truly thrive an active state is a necessity.

Commentators are suggesting Osborne is playing social democratic catch up on pay-day loans as the Conservatives have realised Ed Miliband has struck a chord with voters by focusing on the way markets are rigged against consumers.

Yet the prevailing ideology of the right is so strong it still continues to push the contracting out of public provision of services and privatisation, whilst resisting calls for regulation.

Such a singular approach does a disservice to us all. Some on the right adhere to a narrow vision of the ‘good life’, where the promise to those families who work hard, and are deserving, is that they can send their children to the ‘best’ schools (either private or ‘free’) whilst accessing privatised pension and healthcare schemes. However, those same ministers forget to mention how your future can be wiped out by an under regulated free market (think RBS and LLoyds Bank!). Meanwhile the rest of society, the undeserving, can live in a world marked by financial insecurity, mediocre education, rationed healthcare and an impoverished old age.

Economists have already christened such a scenario as the ‘dual economy’; two societies who live side by side, but hardly knowing one another, unable to imagine what life is like for one another. Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote of such a scenario in 1845, referring to ‘the two nations’

‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws: the rich and the poor’

An alternative approach could be to try to close the gap between the dual economies by supporting a sense of shared responsibility between individuals, society and government. In this relationship government would protect the citizens it has been elected to serve from the abuse of power by the free market.

Individuals feel vulnerable and powerless because they are vulnerable and powerless. Is the average user of pay-day loans able to challenge extortionate interest rates on their own? Am I able to challenge the power of the energy companies as another cold winter approaches? Can any of us challenge the power of the financial industry at an individual level?

Many on the Tory right will scream ‘consumer choice’ as if it’s the answer to every woe, however, will changing providers of whatever service it might be really make a difference. I fear not, and that is why I want a government of politicians that understands where many in this country feel they are today, powerless, abandoned and hopeless.

That is not a good foundation from which to build our collective future. Control of one’s own destiny requires more than the fallacy of individual consumer choice in a free market economy, it requires an active and supportive state focused on the distribution of wealth, and the redistribution of wealth through the tax and benefits system along with regulation of key industries, such as the financial and energy sectors.

Well done Mr cameron and Mr Osborne, you are at last beginning to move in the right direction.

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About digalpin

I gained my social work qualification from the University of Southampton and worked for 14 years in mental health, disability and older people services. I am currently a senior lecturer in post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University and am conducting research on government and societal attitudes and responses to the mistreatment of older people in health and social care provision for my doctorate. My views are my own.

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