On the Dole

Melanie Phillips

  • Unemployment by Jeremy Seabrook
    Quartet, 226 pp, £8.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 7043 2325 7
  • The Black Economy: how it works, who it works for, and what it costs by Arnold Heertje, Margaret Allen and Harry Cohen
    Pan, 158 pp, £1.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 330 26765 5

It is, as Jeremy Seabrook says, the similarities that strike you first.

There was a dull vacuity in his eyes nowadays; he became listless, hard of hearing, saying ‘Eh?’ when anybody asked him a question. Nothing to do with time; nothing to spend; nothing to do tomorrow nor the day after; nothing to wear; can’t get married. A living corpse; a unit of the spectral army of three million lost men.

You lead a sort of double life: the pointlessness of the reduced daily round, and the knowledge that you are still a feeling, thinking human being whose skills and talents are lying unused for the time being ... A lot of people are afraid to lead a full life; it prevents people marrying, having children: you feel you’re not a whole person.

Fifty years separate these two extracts – the first from Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, the second from Unemployment by Jeremy Seabrook. Once again, there are three million out of work; once again, the jobless register the same feelings of apathy, humiliation and futility. Nothing has changed – and yet everything has changed, as Seabrook points out. His central point is that the years since the hungry Thirties, the years of relative plenty and progress in which the material lives of working people have changed immeasurably for the better, have somehow deprived those people of their most valuable possession. The great consumer advances of the never-had-it-so-good Fifties and the whizzbang Sixties robbed working people of the sense of purpose and integrity bred from a communal confidence about their necessary role in society. The paradox was that it was their very oppression, the long hours and appalling conditions at the factories, the relentless poverty, the desperate battle against workhouse pauperism, that reinforced those sterling qualities. The high-rise flats may have replaced back-to-back slums, but they also destroyed communities; similarly, the relative affluence of welfare state Britain brought in its train a whole new set of social problems.

Unemployment is surely one of the most paradoxical of social conditions. If there is a single issue that is likely to identify this government with failure, it is the number of people out of work: yet the stigma attached to those who are unemployed has scarcely diminished in fifty years. The monthly litany of unemployment statistics has become almost a cliché: yet very few people have any idea what it is actually like to live in a community in which a large number of people have been deprived of a purpose in life. It is an infinitely more serious problem than is indicated by the dutiful protestations of political horror that accompany the monthly returns. There are, for a start, many more out of work than the official figures indicate: school-leavers, for example, on schemes like the Youth Opportunities Programme are not counted in the unemployment statistics, but the ‘jobs’ they have don’t fool them and shouldn’t fool anyone else. They are a temporary panacea, simply staving off for a while the day when these youngsters go on the dole. And these youngsters face a future that is even bleaker than the prospect that faced their forbears in the Thirties. They are part of a phenomenon known variously as long-term structural unemployment and an increase in leisure time. Just as capitalism, after the Industrial Revolution, swindled working people out of their entitlement to health and fulfilment by setting them to work in oppressive conditions, so it is now crushing them again by removing their work function in the name of progress. Some of the jobs that have been lost have been submerged, it is true, by the world recession and by specific government policies – which could, in theory at least, be reversed: but many jobs, too, have vanished beneath the ruthless imperative of technological advance.

The permanency of the problem, and the social unrest it is thought to cause, have impelled politicians to devise various formulae for giving young people in particular the semblance of a job, or ‘training’ – anything, in fact, to keep them off the streets and off the unemployment register. The Government’s former plan to force school-leavers onto a new training scheme by refusing to pay them supplementary benefit if they declined to participate indicated the politicians’ desperation. For many people, unemployment is synonymous with social unrest, and last year’s riots were held to be proof of that theory. But to blame unemployment alone for that particular phenomenon would be as implausible as it would be to discount it completely as a factor. Of course, it played a part. If people have jobs, they are less likely to be hanging around street corners waiting for trouble: less likely to be bored, or to feel cheated by the country’s political institutions. But to equate unemployment with riots would not only be facile: it would traduce the millions who have maintained sedate and law-abiding lives in the face of their unemployment. The most striking characteristic of today’s unemployed – and here again we go back to the Thirties – is their almost fatalistic passivity and absence of political anger. Social security payments, and the fact that the families of the unemployed aren’t actually starving, are held to be a powerful barrier to militancy. They replace the anger which would arise from a righteous battle for survival by a sense of worthless and despairing dependency. Such is the paradox of welfare.

If one visits Sunderland, or Liverpool, or other parts of Lancashire, one is struck by the degree of communal alienation from the affluent South. The bleakness, dinginess, eerie quietness of some of these town centres comes as a real shock to the visitor from the relatively protected bottom bit of Britain. In some of the more geographically isolated areas, where unemployment has been endemic for generations, there is an almost unnatural insularity. Mr Norman Tebbit’s famous exhortation to the unemployed to get on their bikes and find work must have sounded particularly strange in communities made so introverted by decades of poverty and idleness that a visit to the next town is an unusual excursion, a train ride to the nearest city a major event, and the thought of moving to another part of the country altogether quite unthinkable. In such places, the children may never have seen the sea, or a farm, even though both may be within a few miles of home. Similarly, an unemployed family may remain for weeks in their house or flat on one of the vast council estates that border the town. The reason given will be that the bus fares into the town centre are just too expensive, or that the service is too infrequent (both of which may be true): but the deeper reason is that the family is often in a slough of depression which saps the will to do anything at all.

This feeling of pointlessness communicates itself acutely to the young. Here there is a marked difference from the remembered experience of older people. Despite the poverty in the Thirties, they say, despite the fact that they may have shared a bed with three other children, the overwhelming memory is usually one of hopefulness, even happiness – certainly never boredom. Perhaps nostalgia casts too rosy a glow on a past of great hardship, but there is nevertheless a lack of sympathy, on the part of older people, with today’s rootless, aimless, listless young. And if one asks the young themselves why they’ve got into trouble with the law, why they’ve bunked off school so often, the answer will often be a shrug and a muttered reference to it just being something to do, everything else being so boring. This attitude characterises, not just the offender on the dole, but younger children still at school. Why should they be so bored and aimless? Is it because the near-certainty of unemployment makes everything seem a complete waste of time? Is it because they identify with a collective feeling of uselessness, distilled from the perceived experiences of parents, siblings and the rest of the community? Is it rotten teaching? Or are there yet more powerful and deeper forces of alienation at work – as Seabrook suggests, the knowledge of greater riches that will always be denied them but are nevertheless maddeningly and tantalisingly present on their television screens?

Television, as often as not a colour set, which is usually on for much of the day and in front of which the family breadwinner sits slumped after he has stayed in bed as late as he possibly can – that television set is one of the major symbols of division between the old poor and the new. How can they be struggling, sniff the veterans of the Thirties, when they’ve got that colour TV, and fitted carpets, and Chopper bikes for the kids. No matter that the sofa is plastic and torn, that the carpet is threadbare, that the heating bills are so enormous it is only the living-room that ever sports a fire; no matter that the children have never had a decent winter coat between them, or that the damp in their bedrooms is making their coughs worse, or that the parents subsist on a bit of cheese so that the children can have a proper tea (which of course excludes meat, fish or fresh fruit); no matter that the mother’s nerves are so bad she’s on tranquillisers and anti-depressants, or that the marriage is staggering from row to row; no matter that the smallest child has started to steal, or that the eldest is still wetting his bed and not doing too well at school. None of these things cuts any ice with the censorious older generation, or with the lucky neighbours in work, for whom one truth is all too plain: the state makes it worth your while to go on the dole. The problem is that poverty has redefined itself, but the new definitions are neither understood nor accepted. Older people perceive the seismic shift in attitudes that appears to have taken place – the loss of self-reliance, the unrealistic expectations, the disappearance of community spirit, the apparent selfishness – and as a result they blame the patients and not the disease.

All of this, which is plain to those who have worked among or studied the condition of the unemployed and other people in poverty, is contained within Seabrook’s lament for the dignity of the working class. His book is at its best, and at its most distressing, when he describes in vivid and poignant detail the lives of the old and the new poor; it is at its weakest in the long passages of extrapolation which veer dangerously towards both sentimentality and oversimplification. Unemployment is still a harsh condition to endure, as it always was; and attitudes towards the unemployed on the part both of individuals and of the state remain similarly vindictive. The welfare role, for example, that social security officials are supposed to play has been whittled down and replaced by the drive against ‘scrounging’, social security frauds and other fiddles. Yet such frauds, so far as anyone has been able to estimate, have never been considered anywhere near as widespread as the myriad of other devices which bolster the black economy.

As the book by Arnold Heertje, Margaret Allen and Harry Cohen shows, this problem is huge. According to some estimates, it accounts for 15 per cent of the gross national product. It embraces tax evasion, business expense fiddles, moonlighting, golden handshakes – and social security fiddles, which make a relatively modest contribution. But the conclusion drawn by this book has more than a little bearing on Jeremy Seabrook’s own researches. ‘People are withdrawing into their own private worlds, society is becoming more and more anti-social, the citizen is becoming alienated from the community, the call for solidarity remains unheeded, people distrust the authorities and any form of power in general, identification with the community is decreasing, and human contact is becoming grim and humourless.’ A bleak diagnosis, and one that takes no account of the reserves of warmth and spontaneity, of positive, generous spirit, that lie beneath the surface of even the most demoralised community. But unless the great scourge of unemployment is tackled, that alienation may indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy.