Matthew Paris says he failed on purpose ...

Matthew Parris has some interesting comments in The Times about whether a centre-right party can speak out on the issues around illness and poverty which David Cameron raised this week.

To boil down his main argument to a sentence, he's saying that everything David Cameron said is true but Tories shouldn't say it because coming from us the message will be counterproductive.

Personally I think Parris has taken an important point and overstated the case. I am convinced that DC was absolutely right where he said that the wish to avoid giving offence has resulted in politicians of all parties not saying things which needed to be said. And IMHO that has been a problem for all parties, not just Conservatives.

However, Parris is right on two points: we need to be very careful indeed in how we address any issue where our comments could be presented as an attack on the poor or an attempt to blame everyone who is in an unfortunate position for their own misfortunes. We have to prepare everything we say against the anticipation that we will be misreprented as telling the underprivileged "It's All Your Own Fault." (I.A.Y.O.F!)

Two recent examples: the Conservative Shadow Work and Pensions secretary, Chris Grayling, recently made a series of speeches about how to lift people out of poverty. It included a description of how socially and economically damaging it can be for the human beings in a community when that area suffers large-scale unemployment lasting for a generation or more, sufficient to lead to a culture of low expectations and undermine the idea human dignity inclused supporting yourself if you are able to do so.

You would have thought that saying that mass unemployment is socially damaging would be something that Conservative and Labour politicians and everyone else could agree with, but you'd be reckoning without the duplicity of Copeland Labour party.

No intelligent person who read those speeches in context could have possibly got the idea that Grayling was saying I.A.Y.O.F. to the unemployed, he was quite clear that "poverty has many causes and many symptoms" and that the problems initially created when areas of the country were hit by prolonged mass unemployment were one of them. Gayling was proposing constructive measures to deal with this. He also said

"I'm not one of those who believe that the welfare to work issue is simply one about benefit scroungers. The problems and issues are far deeper than that." ...

"I do think that the issue of worklessness can be treated in too simplistic a way. For every person who's decided a life on benefits is what they want, there are far more who have been through a period of trauma in their lives and lack the confidence or the support needed to get back into the workplace.

"Like the very large number of people on incapacity benefit who have suffered mental health problems and need well structured, gentle support back into the workplace.

"Or the people for whom the job they have always done has disappeared for good, and they simply don't know which way to turn to find an alternative."

None of this prevented the Labour MP for Copeland from contacting the local newspapers in Copeland and using some very selective quotes from Chris Grayling's speeches to attack Grayling and suggest that he was accusing Cumbria's unemployed of being workshy and bad parents.

Similarly, David Cameron's speech was misrepresented in a Times column by Alice Miles, a journalist intelligent enough that she should have known better, as condemning the poor, the sick and the unemployed, in a classic case of misrepresenting him as telling them I.A.Y.O.F.

This does not mean that we have to give up on any attempt to encourage people to take control of those areas of their lives which their own actions can influence and where they can make a start on their own problems.

We have to be ready for the fact that whenever we make any statement which can be twisted by our opponents in the Labour party and their friends in the media, and misrepresented as an "It's all your own fault" attack, that is how they will present it. We have to have a prepared answer to the I.A.Y.O.F. misrepresentation, demonstrating that we are putting forward constructive measures to help people, not trying to attack or exclude them, has to be ready and the tone must be relentlessly positive.

There is one other important point on which Matthew Parris is absolutely right. There is a serious conflict, which it is impossible to completely reconcile, between two essential principles for any welfare, health, or social system: the need to help everyone who most needs it and the need to reward good behaviour.

Any system which completely excludes some of the people most in need because it is partly their own fault is going to look heartless, callous, and uncaring.

But human nature means that what you reward is what you get, and any system which relentlessly penalises those who do the right thing, which leaves those who work hard, save and make the effort worse off than those who don't, will eventually collapse as the mass of people stop bothering to make the effort.

Both these points are true, and the conclusions drawn from them are directly contradictory. Parris is right that we have to try to strike a balance between the principle of helping those most in need and rewarding those who to the right thing, and that balance is going to be uneasy, arbitrary, and very difficult to get right. But we have to make the effort.

The most interesting thing about the article is when Parris reveals that he deliberately failed his self-imposed test to live on the dole for a week when he was a tory MP some two decades ago. As he puts it,

"As an MP seized with the conviction that if people would do more to help themselves they really could manage, I lived on the dole for a week in Newcastle more than 20 years ago, in a bid to prove it for Granada's World in Action. I heated only one room, bought in bulk, shopped around for seconds, kept warm with gardening, chose an inexpensive sport, etc - and I could have succeeded. But when I sensed the anger I was arousing among nice Geordies I met, not so much because they disagreed with what I said but because of who I was to say it, it dawned on me that I, a sleek young Tory earning ten times what they did, should not be saying it. Not without giving offence. It was a matter of taste, really. So I decided to fail in my bid. In doing so I rescued my political reputation and made my media career.

"So I'm afraid this is actually a rather cynical column: not about policy but presentation; not about what you do but about the reasons you give."

You can read the full article at


Quentin Langley said…
Matthew Parris, intelligent commentator that he is, has missed the most significant change in British politics in recent years. David Cameron has been talking for years about helping the poor, about the broken society, about the damage caused by crime, and broken families. He has argued that we must stop creating incentives for teenage girls to have children. All of this has been reported respectfully, even by the left-wing media. From any previous Conservative leader the BBC would have headlined such speeches as an attack on single parents. With Cameron they report what he actually said.
Anonymous said…
Who broke our families and society?
Did she utter the words "There's no such thing as society".
Chris Whiteside said…
Quentin, that's a very good point. Part of Cameron's genius has been that he usually finds a form of words to say important things about how to solve the problems facing society without it coming over as an attack on the poor.

And there is no better example that the infamous example of an out-of-context quote which "Anonymous" drags up. Look at the whole paragraph in which Mrs T used the phrase, and in contest it is clear that she wasn't saying "ignore everyone else" but reminding us that if we want to solve a problem, specific human beings have to do something about it rather than leave it to some abstract called "society". SO she was actually saying almost the exact opposite of what people who quote that phrase out of context usually infer.

Compare that to how David Cameron worded his comment on the same issue:

"There is such a thing as society, it just isn't the same as the state."
Quentin Langley said…
Anonymous, I think the welfare state probably broke our society.

It is a comforting fantasy to think that the state can step in in a minimalist way to fill the gaps left by voluntary associations - be they commercial, charitable or family - but what it seems to do instead is replace the voluntary associations and leave the gaps in place: the exact reverse of what was intended.

Just look at what poverty means in rich countries? Is it a lack of the calories to sustain life and health? Nope, poverty is significantly associated with overeating rather than malnutrition. Is it a lack of clothing? Of travel opportunities? Of TV or other entertainments? Of mobile phones? No, it is none of these things. It is characterised by poor education, poor health, inadequate protection from crime and substandard housing. In other words, poor people lack the things which government either supplies on a near monopoly basis or which it supplies specifically to the poor. The things the privte sector supplies such as food, mobile phones and cars, ar generally available at a wide variety of prices to suit every pocket.

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