I saw a coronavirus banner the other day that said “Check in on your five nearest neighbours”, and I thought about Errol Graham.
Back in January, just as China’s Covid-19 outbreak was turning critical, the story broke of how Graham, a grandfather of two and lover of football, had died aged 57. In June 2018, bailiffs pursuing him for nonpayment of his rent had found Graham’s body, which weighed just four and a half stone. A coroner’s report said he suffered from severe social anxiety, and had isolated himself from even family and friends. His flat in Nottingham had no gas or electricity, and there was no food in his fridge apart from two cans of fish that were four years out of date.
Eight months before Graham’s body was discovered, his benefits had been stopped after he didn’t attend a fitness for work assessment. Among the items found in his home was a letter addressed to what news reports called “welfare officials”, pleading with them to “judge me fairly”.
We all know the basics: a population divided into ‘skivers' and ‘strivers', and the endless cruelties of ‘sanctions'
Graham’s case received a lot of attention, not least in the Guardian. But for all the awfulness of his story, it never really caught the popular imagination: at the time it was covered, the media was still aflame with controversy about the opinionated actor Laurence Fox and the fate of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Graham was one particularly tragic example of something that 21st-century Britain has long been in danger of accepting as a given: a nasty, punitive benefits system seemingly run according to the inhuman rhetoric we have regularly heard from politicians – and still might be hearing, had Covid-19 not arrived.
For about a decade now, the cruelties of that system and their consequences have existed in plain sight. We all know the basics: a population divided into “skivers” and “strivers”, people either ill or disabled summarily judged fit for work, joblessness usually assumed to be the fault of the jobless person, and the endless cruelties of the “sanctions” that mean many people have had their benefits arbitrarily suspended, leaving them barely able to survive. In February it was revealed that the National Audit Office had linked at least 69 suicides to the workings of the benefits system, and this number was probably an underestimate.
Six weeks later, the fact that people in charge are suddenly speaking a language of solidarity and accepting that unemployment is a consequence of economics rather than character failure is something to behold. Whatever its caveats, Rishi Sunak’s “plan for people’s jobs and incomes” is welcome; so is hearing him talk about people “not being able to pay the rent or the mortgage” and “not having enough set by for food and bills”. There is a truly astral irony in Sunak’s efforts being saluted by that well-known Tory sympathiser Bernie Sanders. Nonetheless, just about every part of the benefits machine that has ruined so many lives is, inevitably, still in place. We will sooner or later find out if it can survive this huge undermining of its basic logic – and either grind on or at last be changed.
As my colleague Polly Toynbee pointed out last week, there will be a very large gap between the communitarian words of politicians and the reality that people new to benefits will discover when they begin trying to access universal credit. This is already becoming clear in the stories of day-long waits on helplines and the mounting sense of a new segment of the population finding that supposed “welfare” falls far short of what is required to avoid debt, bad housing, ill health and all the rest. Yes, the government has loosened some aspects of universal credit, working tax credits and payments for housing. The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that people receiving benefits will not have to attend the usually compulsory jobcentre appointments for at least three months – a move that, in theory at least, suspends the sanctions regime. But even these things could sooner or later revert to normal, with consequences that this crisis and its aftershocks will inevitably make worse.
When politics returns to normal, nobody on the left should kid themselves that resisting such backward steps will be easy. After all, we are talking not just about policies and systems, but also beliefs that are deeply entrenched in large chunks of the population, and which even this international tragedy might not shift. Notwithstanding a softening of people’s views about the welfare state and support for increasing the minimum wage, recent research from the British social attitudes survey suggested that when it came to benefits and the needs they cover, we remained a fairly crabby, judgmental country. In 2018, 43% of us accepted the idea that the “generosity of welfare benefits creates dependence”. Only 20% of us agreed that unemployed people should receive higher benefits. The kicker, perhaps, was the fact that 56% of respondents agreed that “most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one”, compared with just 17% who disagreed.
Outside of major cities, I have heard these things so many times that they have often seemed as unremarkable as the weather. In many cases, they are a dysfunctional sign of the resentments and frustrations sown by insecurity and want. They have been repeatedly stoked by politicians – most obviously by Conservatives, though rifling through the news archives throws up such memorable headlines as “Gordon Brown to crack down on benefit cheats in Queen’s speech” (from 2008).
But to some extent, people in Westminster were merely seizing on malign views already present in the culture. The most pitiful thing to see was the acceptance of these opinions by people whose experiences showed how misplaced they were. I remember going to the Cheshire town of Warrington eight years ago and, watched by press officers from the Department of Work and Pensions, interviewing a 27-year-old man who had just endured nine months of unemployment. He said he had been averaging 25 to 30 job applications a week, most of which had not even got a reply. “I think I should have applied for more,” he said. “I should have tried more. When you’re feeling down, you start blaming the world for your mistakes … You feel the world owes you. And it doesn’t.”
If millions of people are suddenly staring into the most uncertain future imaginable, and 500,000 people are suddenly applying for universal credit, will those ideas survive? Put another way, what will happen to the beliefs and prejudices that have defined so much of the last 10 to 15 years, encouraged by politicians chasing votes: mutual suspicion, a manic belief in “personal responsibility”, and the very British tendency to focus your furies on the people down the street?
In his capacity as a newspaper editor, the former chancellor George Osborne last week commissioned a special back page of London’s Evening Standard emblazoned with the slogan “London stands together”. God knows, in times as dreadful as these our capital city could do with as much solidarity and mutual care as it can get. But I also wonder about the infamous speech he made in 2012, all cheap misanthropy and cynicism: “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?” While imploring the young and strong to stay in their homes in the interests of the old, infirm and vulnerable, we now want those same neighbours to be embracing their common humanity, and checking on each other’s welfare. We had better hope they will.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist