Welfare reform: Thatcher's politics are still relevant


I grew up in a Welsh mining community and many of my family knew what it was to dig deep for "King Coal", and so I can look back on Mrs Thatcher's epic clash with "the enemy within" with mixed feelings.

I feel deeply for those whose lives were traumatised, and whose families were devastated by the effects of the miners' strike. I know what it is to wander around communities devastated by the blight of mass unemployment.

Having said that I can readily identify with Neil Kinnock who has suggested that Arthur Scargill bears far more responsibility for all that followed, whatever you think about Mrs Thatcher's policies.

And I have to admit that, for all her faults, I respected and even applauded her emphasis on personal responsibility. She was the product of a different generation and culture and as such she was willing to work hard and not depend on other people's charity to achieve all she set out to do.

And it is because of this I believe she still has much to say in the current debate about welfare reform. I guess we've all been shocked by "Shameless Mick'" Philpott's behaviour, although I have to question the Chancellor's wisdom in allowing the question of welfare reform to be clouded by the appalling way Philpott treated his children.

I believe the two issues are linked but the relationship is very complicated. George Osborne's public pronouncements will have done little to clarify the issues or reduce the political temperature, and I regret that because welfare reform is a pressing necessity and the debate needs to be conducted in a much calmer atmosphere.

We all know that there are those who "swing the lead". I met people like that when I was growing up on my council estate in Gwent. It's an unfortunate, but all-too common feature of human behaviour. Even the apostle Paul felt he had to address the issue on one occasion, and the record shows that differentiating between the "deserving" and the "undeserving poor" has challenged many more governments than the present one.

I am convinced that the Government's case for welfare reform has a moral dimension. A Sunday Times leader highlighted this recently when it said, "The bishops and the anti-poverty groups have become campaigners for an unreformed welfare state. .. but there can be no meaningful reform of the welfare state that does not attempt to tackle its corrosive effect on working-age people. The goal should be to wean those who do not need to be on benefits off them, while ensuring that those in genuine need are properly supported. This is Mr Duncan Smith's goal and .. it is a fundamentally Christian one."

As Thatcher famously said: "Pennies don't fall from heaven – they have to be earned here on earth".

In the same way I would echo Mrs Thatcher's emphasis on our God given responsibility to care for the poor. She was right to suggest that: "No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well".

Unfortunately, the ensuing decades have shown the possession of wealth is no guarantee of generosity. Mrs Thatcher seemed to understand this as we can see from yet another quote: "Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul." Unfortunately that proved even too big a task for the lady who had the joy of watching the fall of communism.

But much as I admire her, and as much as I often found myself agreeing with her, we parted company on one fundamental issue: I cannot see why, or how she could suggest that there is no such thing as society.

We were created in the image of God and therefore with the capacity to love and to be loved. We have been told what God requires of us: we are "To act justly and to love mercy" as well as "To walk humbly with your God". And sadly there are lots of lives that have been scarred by memories that suggested that, for all their fine achievements, Mrs Thatcher's governments paid less attention to those issues than the regeneration of the British economy.

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