Squabbling over the spoils: what Britain's welfare debate says about modern politics

Demagogues are sucking the air out of genuine public debate.

The light rain shower passed quickly and a soft, light-blue glow suffused the London sky. The gleam coming from my friend's face was, however, one of absolute incredulity. "Absolutely not!" She was insistent. "What's happened has absolutely nothing to do with policy. Politics so rarely does. And it certainly wasn't about people with a disability."

Despite wiping the floor with Labour less than a year ago, Britain's conservative government is in disarray. The budget's been rejected; backbenchers are openly canvassing the possibility of replacing Prime Minister David Cameron with peripatetic self-aggrandiser (and occasional Canberra Times columnist) Boris Johnson; and hardline Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne's ill-disguised ambitions to lead the country have been dispatched to the outfield. All, supposedly, because the budget slashed disability benefits – or perhaps not. My friend sighed. "This spat was only ever about ambition, sparked by one man's pent-up frustration."

Ian Duncan Smith, or IDS (surname "Duncan Smith"; after all, a former Scots Guards officer could never be merely "Lieutenant Smith") had an urgent need for revenge after being supplanted as conservative leader. Disability reform came readily to hand. It was simply a convenient cudgel with which to beat the Prime Minister.

Duncan Smith had rapidly proved a total failure as opposition leader, back in 2001. He'd tried to turn his lack of charisma into a plus, with advertisements blaring "do not underestimate the quiet man". It turned out, however, that it was impossible to underestimate the man. Attempts to reposition IDS as a "man of action" made passivity into a desirable trait. It was only a matter of time before he was shafted and his colleagues weren't even prepared to give him a shot at contesting a general election; they valued their own careers too much. But IDS wasn't the sort of person to retire gracefully – failed political leaders rarely are. Instead, the self-appointed "ideas man" began spouting old answers to new problems. The European Court of Justice rejected some of these as "unfit for a modern democracy"; however, IDS was not dismayed. He'd faced rejection before and so sat, anger slowly festering, until finally he saw a chance to strike.

This came just over a week ago with the release of the British budget. The headline stunt was meant to be the imposition of a "sugar tax" on soft drinks and snack bars; unfortunately for the government, it didn't take people long to realise that the way it was balancing the budget also involved swingeing cuts to benefits. IDS seized his chance. The quiet man unsheathed a razor sharp stiletto to plunge it into Osborne's back.

The cuts were, he insisted, "deeply unfair", as indeed they were. Almost as unfair as ones he'd advocated earlier, when he'd urged those with disabilities to "work their way out of poverty". His apparent hypocrisy neutered his attack far more than anything the Chancellor could have said in his own defence, of course, and the scandal rapidly degenerated into a farce exposing B-grade actors full of petty grudges and suppurating grievances. There's more, of course, much more, and the whole bizarre circus really deserves a half-hour episode in a tedious soap opera, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the pettiness of politics. The colour and hypocrisy of IDS suddenly appointing himself defender of the vulnerable should be enough by itself to guarantee solid comedy ratings, as should Osborne's former dismissal of his one-time leader as "not particularly clever". But that's not the point here. The issue is rather to examine the way individuals come to believe their election to political office bestows a halo of righteousness allowing them – and them alone – to correctly divine right from wrong.


Which is, of course, rubbish. Ideologues deserve to be consigned to the extremities of the political spectrum, in a dustpan of putrid rubbish. And yet they're not. Why is it that no matter how half-baked the "idea" may be; and no matter how wild-eyed its earnest advocate is, it's treated with respect as long as it is "authentically held"? It's as if we, as a society, have somehow lost the ability to assert a common core of fundamental beliefs. How else is it possible to explain the rise of Donald Trump and fundamentalists of all persuasions? Why are the fringes so convinced of their inviolability and correctness, despite all evidence to the contrary? Where has the centre gone?

When she was Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher said famously "there is no such thing as society". Today, no one would dare vocalise this sentiment, and yet it doesn't take much thought to recognise it's a concept that politicians will readily use for their own purposes. Instead of assuming, for example, that people with a disability might do better with our support to help them achieve things themselves, governments treat them as fraudsters sucking money from more deserving hands and rush to buy votes by redistributing benefits back to taxpayers.

Politicians behave as if there's a hollow core at the centre of modern society. We're being treated as if self-interest is the only thing that can motivate us, even though we're all aware we can achieve more together than individually. When the only time concern for the disadvantaged enters the political debate is so someone can seize the opportunity to make political capital out of it, you know it's the politicians who have lost their bearings.

This is not some sort of idealistic paean of pining for a lost age; it's just a realistic appraisal of why it is that demagogues and method actors like Trump are managing to suck the air out of genuine political debate. And you know full well those who are performing a similar role in Australia, although there's no need to mention Tony Abbott's name. It's just time for them to move on and let us return to dealing with the real issues.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.