Friday 27 September 2013

Welfare, Work or a combination?

Welfare or Work or a Combination?

Throughout economic and political history there have been ideas, suggestions, even occasionally (usually Opposition) policies that tried to combine the idea of welfare and work. But in general these two ‘Ws’ have been seen as binaries – implacably opposed. Most recently, partly under the pressure of recession, debt and the need to cut public spending, but also, beginning before the Credit Crunch, in response to public doubts about the size and scope of welfare dependency, governments have tried to encourage people into work and off reliance on benefits. This of course rests on the assumption that people on benefits are there because they don’t have the ability (or sometimes the will) to gain and keep a job – an assumption that is not necessarily correct, since availability of jobs varies enormously from one area of the country to another and not everyone is able or willing to move long distances in search of work, not least because they are aware that those who do relocate sometimes find that the job fails to materialise or ends quickly, leaving them without social support networks and possibly struggling with higher living costs in more affluent localities. However, there is little doubt in most people’s minds that Welfare needs reform, and many see the Coalition’s efforts as a step in the right direction. That said, I personally know some decent and potentially hardworking people in the rural south-west (where work is somewhat scarce) who are deserving of their benefits since their unemployed status has endured through no fault of their own, though at the same time I long for them to find suitable work.
            So, is there a way of combining people’s need (and in most cases desire) for work with a safety net that both ensures no one starves or is in real need (homeless or in rags as a result of poverty, for example – a strange idea to us now in this country but all too common a century ago), and prevents people from depending on welfare? Well, curiously enough, I wonder whether we should revisit the system that was used by Eastern bloc communist governments such as that in Poland between 1945 and 1989. Here everyone was guaranteed a job and therefore an income, but this doesn’t mean that all jobs were paid the same or had equal status. It merely ensured that there was no unemployment. Welfare also existed in the form of State provided benefits, but command economies such as these have had a (deservedly) bad press since such economies almost universally failed by the 1980s, which is part of the reason for their political demise. However, I think it is worth unpacking the different economic structures and looking at them individually, since their failure may be because of their production values rather than because of their employment policies. (These thoughts were sparked in part, by the way, by reading the chapter on ‘Communism and Consumerism’ in Brian Porter-Szücs’ forthcoming book Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom, published by Wiley Blackwell – though the author merely describes and analyses the Polish economy during the communist years; I don’t wish to imply that he would agree with my ideas at all!)
            In an Eastern bloc country such as Poland the emphasis was on the supply side of the economy – industrial production was geared round producing a certain quantity of goods according to quotas, with the idea of selling these in the export market and generating income for national investment. There was no guarantee that these goods would sell, and to a supply-side economy of this kind, that didn’t seem important – at least, not to those who were producing the goods. (Of course, in the end it was important because without sales there was no money to continue investment and production, and the economy got into debt.) But what if there had been efforts to produce what was wanted by consumers, to advertise, to encourage some kind of demand-side economy to develop alongside the full employment commitment? Would this inevitably lead to a full-blown capitalist model where firms respond only to demand and employment becomes reliant on demand and growth continuing, where inflation is the major problem for consumers? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I think it is at least feasible that one could have both a full-employment (but no welfare payments) system where everyone is guaranteed a job somewhere, even if it is low paid and carrying out community-service type jobs (one unemployed man of my acquaintance says he would be more than willing to carry out such jobs and be paid to do so, but he is not allowed because these are set aside for convicts). It is then up to the workers to look for a better-paid and more rewarding job if they can find one.
            This is, I suppose, quite close to the idea that people should work for their benefits, but it may be that this is resisted because of the way it is seen and interpreted. If there were no benefits, only jobs, perhaps this mindset (which it seems to me is unhelpful) would change. Why, after all, should anyone think that he or she is entitled to payment just because he/she exists, except as a safety net to prevent destitution? And if there is another way to prevent destitution and have a job (which is in itself so much better than sitting around doing nothing, both in terms of wasted labour and in terms of self-esteem for the unemployed person), surely this is a win-win situation against which only ideological objections can be made? I’m not suggesting we should adopt communist economic principles – it is clear that they do not work, quite apart from the fact that they are associated with totalitarianism – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth considering some ideas that such Eastern bloc command economies had.
            The other way to come at this problem may be through the idea of a Basic Payment received by everyone, set at a level that the country can afford, and untaxed (i.e. an individual right or entitlement), on top of which people may (and most are expected to) take a job paid at whatever rate their skills and qualifications merit. In such a system there are no welfare benefits, but no attempt at equality either. So far as I am aware, no country has yet implemented such a system, but the idea comes round occasionally, generally from fairly left-wing sources. It too has its merits, but since we have had no chance to assess it economically, it remains in the realm of blue-sky thinking. I haven’t seen it costed, but I suspect it would be very expensive, because unlike the full-employment model, the Basic Payment has no intrinsic labour value. Some people might  simply choose not to work (as some do, sadly, under the current UK Welfare system, in spite of the Coalition’s efforts to change this), even though that meant they would have little spending power. Of the two, I think the full-employment scenario has more mileage, though no doubt it would have its disadvantages, like most things!

            I would welcome some comments on these ideas – I’m still not sure who reads this blog (though I’m told that some people do …). You can leave a comment here, or on my website, If they have any merit, perhaps it would be good to spark a wider debate. Now who would want to take this up, I wonder? Ed Miliband (Old Labour used to like the idea of full employment), Nick Clegg (the fairness of the Basic Payment might appeal) or David Cameron (surely the Conservatives would like the idea of everyone having to work for a living)?

Monday 22 July 2013

On the nature of inspiration

It has often been my experience (and that of many other authors, I suspect) that when there is lots of time in which to write, the inspiration with which to do it well has a tendency to dry up – at least once the immediate section of prose or poetry that has been nagging me to be written has been committed to paper or at least the computer. When wonderful stretches of time are ahead of me, my paid work (copyediting and indexing) having dried up (one hopes temporarily, for fear of the Wolf at the Door) and I’m looking forward to writing without interruption, the joy and expectation are intense.

And then, quite suddenly, after a week or two of plain sailing, with the story apparently running merrily before the wind of inspiration, the novel hits some kind of block. Perhaps I thought I knew which way the story was going, but without warning it develops a kink and seeks to rush off in a new direction, and if I stop to consider this, or to work out which way I should take it next (should I follow the interesting subplot that has occurred to me, or plough on with the original trajectory?) then the whole thing can grind to a halt. There are then two choices: to go on sensibly, if on rather leaden feet, writing the story as it was originally planned – which has the advantage of its being well thought out and all fitting together neatly into the original schema; or to try to see where this new idea might lead. And if I’m not careful, in the midst of this indecisiveness, the whole plot falters, and the inspiration for the next section fails. Or perhaps I simply lose my way in the immediate plot and am left with a bridging section that I just can’t capture.

Does it really matter what happens to these characters that I thought were so interesting? I ask myself. Shall I just wipe the whole lot out, or (more prudently) save it in a Pending folder, and start on something else (there are always two or three novels hovering somewhere in the wings of my mind, clamouring for their turn in the sun)? The lack of paid work suddenly seems a nuisance rather than a blessing – at least I know what to do with the copyediting and indexing, and they have the virtue of, well, being paid; and if there were outside work clamouring for my attention I shouldn’t have to sit at my desk with the screen in front of me, trying to work out what to write next. Fortunately, if I really get stuck, before too long another offer of copyediting or indexing will usually come along and rescue me, and the cycle repeats itself, with my finding the next part of the story reeling itself off, and longing yet again for some space to write it in. This can feel very frustrating.

And yet, it may be that this stop-start progression is actually how the writing process works for me. Perhaps I need to have the story percolating somewhere out of sight beneath the level of conscious thought, to spring out ready to be written when time becomes available. Perhaps I shall never be able to write in long swathes of time, as I constantly dream I will – looking with envy on bestselling authors who have the luxury (or so it looks to me) to write full time – one day, when I retire, when I don’t need to help with the family finances, when my children are grown up and don’t need my time and energy (and if you’re reading this, Izzy, don’t feel that I grudge it …), when (if?) my novels start to sell well and there is therefore the financial incentive to write more quickly (my two published novels each took years to write, edit and hone before they were ready to go out into the world, and I sometimes still want them back to make improvements!). One day… The dream is important, in itself, I think. It keeps me looking forward, making the most of the time there is, continuing to stretch for the best writing I can do, and hoping that as time goes on I will be able to write better. If it feels disruptive to go back and forth between the creative work of writing and the reactive work of copyediting and indexing, yet perhaps that tension in itself keeps the inspiration ticking over.

Who knows? This week I’ll finish the indexing work on which I’m engaged at the moment, and there will be some weeks when writing (between school summer holiday duties) will be tantalisingly possible.

I’ll let you know how it works out ….

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Libertas vel liber: Marriage, Civil Partnerships and the Freedom to Choose

I was interested to hear of the disarray in our Coalition government, even among members of the same section of it, on the subject of gay marriage. Of course, part of this is a latent homophobic tendency in the right wing, submerged now and often iceberg-like in its tendency to show only a little of its bulk above the surface. But I think there is also a genuine recognition that marriage is fundamentally an institution that cannot be altered to fit the whims of our particular generation. It has a tradition going back millennia, quite possibly into the very earliest human societies of the Pleistocene, and at its heart the union between one man and one woman with the possibility implicit that that union will culminate in a family. Although I hold no brief for any kind of homophobia and count several gay people among my friends, I can see that this point of view has a validity that it is hard to overturn.
            For many there is also a religious element, that Christian marriage has held a particular status in a society that has been, even if it no longer is, built on Christian values. Certainly the Church has always held that marriage is a sacrament, with a spiritual and symbolic quality in addition to its physical reality. And the relationship between Christ and the Church has been compared, by St Paul among others, to that between husband and wife. It is hardly surprising, then, that many Christians feel strongly about marriage as a fundamentally and unalterably heterosexual institution, and will feel that the unholy conjoining of disparate parts of Coalition and Opposition to defeat the so-called Wrecking Amendment is one more indication of a long slide away from the values that they hold dear. And I will not be alone in viewing the proposal to penalise registrars who don’t want to officiate at gay marriage ceremonies on grounds of conscience as a serious erosion of liberties. There has already been a long-drawn-out case involving two nurses who refused to supervise abortions for conscience reasons and whose NHS employers have threatened to sack them as a result. Owners of bed-and-breakfast accommodation are no longer allowed to choose whom they allow to stay in their own homes if there is a suspicion that their objection to a couple has anything to do with their being gay. It is one thing to pass laws to protect the vulnerable and ensure social order and peace, but quite another to  insist that everyone takes the same view and must act in the same way. There is more than a whiff of Big Brother about all this – in the Orwellian sense not the reality TV one, I hasten to add.
            The suggestion of promoting equality by allowing heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships, which has come into play even as some politicians are considering phasing out these partnerships when (if) the Gay Marriage Bill becomes law, has been ridiculed by some of the news media. But making access to these partnerships available to couples of all orientations seems to me to be a splendid notion, and something that I have in fact been touting among friends for some while. It would have the advantage of giving gay and straight couples equal status. It would also allow for long-term relationships of a quasi-marriage type, such as cohabitation, to be given proper standing, as civil rather than spiritual or religious arrangements – something which would suit many people who see their relationships as purely civil and whose marriages are conducted by non-religious registrars in a variety of venues. Civil partnerships allow for some legal status for spouses with regard to inheritance, which would be of great benefit to cohabitees who do not actually want to be married, for whatever reason, but who wish to act responsibly – and this could extend to some legal recognition for women in such partnerships where a relationship breaks down. It would also lead to the word ‘partner’ acquiring some real meaning, rather than being a rather vague euphemism for ‘live-in lover’ or ‘father of my children’ or ‘current boyfriend’, covering a wide range of possibilities and often creating confusion and embarrassment when ‘business partner’ is actually what is meant!
            It is time we began to think clearly about the kind of society we are trying to create, rather than lurching from one proposition to another, propelled by a desire for political correctness along a vaguely liberal and secular line that is often ill-thought-out and full of its own type of prejudice with regard to anyone who happens to disagree with it. “Liberal” ideas are supposed to allow people freedom for contrary opinions, not curtail it according to a received set of values and opinions, as is fast beginning to happen. The word has its roots in ‘liberare’ – ‘to free’ – not ‘liber’ (a book).
            No, let’s not go back to ‘doing it by the book’. Please.