The absurdity of Jeremy Hunt’s “cultural signal”

In spite of criticism of the cuts being made to Working Tax Credits (WTCs), Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has defended the Conservative Welfare Bill, labelling the cuts as “a very important cultural signal”. He went on to compare the British economy with the Chinese economy, stating: “My wife is Chinese, and if we want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, there is a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which, is, essentially, are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in a way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in a way that Americans are prepared to work hard?” Indeed, it feels as if the entire cabinet has, at one stage or another, exercised their fascination with the East Asian autocracy, and the more you consider the idea, the more absurd it seems.

Mr Hunt has recently dodged a vote of no confidence, sparked by his comments about NHS staff in August, when he described a “Monday to Friday” culture as being prevalent within areas of the NHS, and blamed deaths at the weekend on doctors and nurses for not showing enough commitment to the job, while the government has continually made cuts to spending in the public health sector. In light of this, we begin to get a true sense of Hunt’s beliefs regarding work as a source of “independence, self-respect and dignity”. There is an issue with his concept of what defines a successful country. If it is merely defined by how hard the people work, then his statement that British workers should work as hard as Chinese ones is a logical truth. However, in the 21st century, I would like to imagine that a successful country is measured by the degree of self-actualisation within the citizenry; working to death in ungratifying and monotonous jobs does not make a successful country.

In essence, Hunt told claimants that he was offering them virtues such as “dignity” in exchange for their money, when that is exactly what the reform robs them of. This irony has been mirrored by an unprecedented series of surreal assertions made by other ministers at the Conservative Party Conference last week; in their attempts to recapture the middle ground that Labour have recently vacated, the conference came to resemble something of an experimental art piece exploring how Orwellian double-speak could be applied to contemporary UK politics. Hunt went on to say, of the supposed £16,5000 minimum family income needed to support children without the child being classified as ‘in poverty’, that “it matters if you are earning that yourself, because if you are earning it yourself, you are independent, and that is a step towards self-respect”. It would be interesting to find out where this information originates from; it’s certainly convenient for psychological research to suggest people must earn their money in order to achieve self-respect, when this is precisely what is required for the economy to grow.

I’m not going to claim that work cannot offer the virtues Hunt advocates. Working for your passion, or to your coinciding talent, can be incredibly rewarding, and it is a mistake to see work merely as a means of survival, and money as the only means of happiness. However, the “cultural signal”, if that is what this reform is intended as, holds that self-respect is something which must be earned through work for your country. All that the signal does in fact tell people is that they should feel bad for having to accept any money at all; already, an estimated two million people do not claim the money they are entitled to. As such, whatever other justification Hunt offers in defence of the cuts must be viewed as nothing more than deeply disturbing spin.

The cuts made to WTCs will not lead to the kind of fulfilling work Hunt describes, only longer hours and more strain on family resources among societies’ disadvantaged. Solutions to the disenfranchisement that necessitates such safety net policies can only be found in a serious overhaul of the education and employment system, and it is an inconvenient truth (but a truth nonetheless) that such an overhaul is impossible without a lot of spending.

In 2003, Gordon Brown introduced WTCs to replace Working Families Tax Credits, Disabled Person’s Tax Credits and Children’s Tax Credits. According to Osborne’s budget, WTCs are going to be replaced with Universal Credit; however, this is still in the pipelines, whereas the changes to WTCs are taking place now. They were originally brought about as an incentive to work, an extra rung in the ladder to employment, so that people moving from unemployment to part-time work or to a zero hour contract could supplement their income. By withdrawing the tax credits, the Tories appear to be under the impression that the five million people who currently claim WTCs will all be so overjoyed that they will automatically move on to better employment, because, of course, nothing encourages people work harder than having money taken away from them. The IFS director Paul Johnson has been quoted by the BBC as saying that the rise in the minimum wage is “not enough to compensate most of those who will be receiving tax credits”. Many people could lost up to £1,350 a year, a fact which Mr Hunt, along with other cabinet ministers, continues to deny.


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April 2021
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