10 OCTOBER 1987, Page 6


Mrs Thatcher takes out her crystal ball and peers into the past



Blackpool on't fail to pay this lady a visit. She has been on a world tour giving advice. She gives satisfaction not flattery.' I paused, reading this notice by a doorway on the North Promenade, and with a wild surmise I looked at the list of subjects to be discussed: 'Health, Finance, Business'. What about Jobs, Education and Inner Cities? But although the conference fringe does include some pretty unlikely events, the Prime Minister has not yet taken to offering private consultations — the name over the door was 'Gypsy Boswell'.

Gypsy Thatcher is credited, all the same, with uncanny powers of clairvoyance by many of her followers. Speaker after speaker at this conference has reminded her of the doubters and waverers who told her in the past that de-nationalisation, council house sales and a host of other policies would never be popular. Who can argue with her now? They have become like the followers of Mrs Lakwena, the Ugandan priestess who send her soldiers into battle armed only with her magic ointment and her prediction of victory. When you have won three major cam- paigns in this way, it seems churlish not to admit that the magic works. Yet sceptics are bound to suspect that, like all fortune- tellers, Gypsy Thatcher's knowledge of the future is really nothing more than a shrewd ability to size up the present when it walks into her consulting-room and holds out its palm.

In retrospect, the sale of council houses and state-owned industries does not look like a very risky thing to have done. People like to feel they have more control over their own lives, and they also like to make money; you do not need exceptional in- sight into human nature to realise that policies which allow them to both these things at once are going to be popular. The real problem arises when giving them greater independence actually involves making them worse off, by making them pay for things which they did not pay for directly before. Here Mrs Thatcher's sizing up of the character of the country may still be open to serious doubt. There has been much talk of saving people from 'the degradation of dependence' and of giving them that pearl of great price, their 'digni- ty'. But dignity may prove harder to give away than discounts. No doubt the people who are most dependent on the state are generally miserable — they are miserable because they are poor. Many of them do not resent being supported by society; they regard it as a right, and resent only the fact that they are not supported more thor- oughly. When Thatcher and Moore tell us, like Scott Fitzgerald, that the dependent are not like us, we must bring them rudely back to earth with Hemingway's reply: 'No, they have less money.'

Amid all the flap and hype over the current re-thinking of the Welfare State, one crucial policy document has gone almost completely unnoticed. Yet some of the suggestions it contains are more radical than anything that has yet been publicly admitted from the conference platform. On the unemployed, for example, it goes much further than Mr Fowler's tepid announcement that people who refuse training will be denied social security be- nefits. This document clearly demands workfare as well as trainfare: the unem- ployed 'should be required as a condition of continued benefit to attend a work or training centre'. This, it suggests, is the most effective way of 'unmasking' those who are malingering or moonlighting. It insists that people 'cannot be allowed to hold out indefinitely for work of the type to which they are used, or in their present places of residence': this conjures up for the first time a Welfare State in which people will be forced to get on their bikes. Where the NHS is concerned, this document says that people should pay towards the cost of surgical appliances, nursing, convalescent homes and, in some cases, the 'hotel expenses' of a stay in hospital. On pensions it suggests that the state pension should be set at a minimum, 'leaving room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more'. A con- stant theme is the principle which underlies Mrs Thatcher's 'Community Charge': the whole system should be funded by people paying at a flat rate, whether rich or poor, because they will all receive the same benefit. The term 'poll tax' is actually used here to describe the principle involved.

This certainly sounds like the sort of thing Mr Scargill would describe as a hidden agenda. But the document is not secret; it was published in 1942 and sold 625,000 copies. Mrs Thatcher was 17 at the time — an impressionable age. Indeed, she carries a copy of the Beveridge Report in her handbag. This explains, perhaps, why she and her handbag can never be parted: she is carrying the Ark of the Covenant.

Beveridge's whole philosophy was pro- foundly anti-socialist. 'Benefit in return for contributions', he declared, 'rather than free allowances from the state, is what the people of Britain desire.' The beauty of a system of insurance was that people who had paid their premiums were paid benefits in virtue of their contractual rights: the whole system rested not on paternalism or 'social justice' but the hard-nosed contrac- tual justice, the market-place principle of getting what.you had paid for. Lloyd George had seized on the anti-socialist implications of this as early as 1911; he called it 'dishing the Webbs'. But the real inventor of the system was the person who gave • Lloyd George the idea in the first place: Bis- marck. A book should be written on 'The Welfare State from Bismarck to Thatcher'. It would make a good title.

If you reject the notion of 'social justice', and therefore abandon the socialist princi- ple of 'from each according to his income, to each according to his needs', the im- plications are radical indeed. It ceases to be obvious that the state itself should supply anyone's needs at all, except as a safety-net for the utterly needy. Where services are supplied they can be paid for, and contractual justice suggests that they be paid for at the going rate, just as bakers charge both rich and poor customers the same price for their loaves. That, it seems, is the principle behind the 'Community Charge: When Mrs Thatcher said that the charge should be related to people's ability to pay, she meant that if they were able to pay the cost of what they received they should jolly well do so.

The problem is that things, and people, have changed somewhat since 1942. Wel- fare spending has exploded (to the point where the insurance principle is a mere sham). And, more important, people have lost their scruples about receiving money from the state. If you believe in 'social justice', as Most people nowadays seem to, this sort of 'dependence' is not an indignity but an entitlement. As Mrs Thatcher leads her troops into the 1940s, it may be too late to tell her that, on this point at least, we are all socialists now.