The National Conversation is not about finding consensus – but rather common ground where people can come together to have grown-up conversations that generate more light than heat.
When we looked at the welfare issue in autumn 2012 – and once we got past partisan rhetoric – we found many people worried that the idea of contribution had slipped out of the welfare debate.
So it’s interesting to see two major papers – The Times and The Independent – publish leaders this week on the question of contribution, and why it’s the key to creating a welfare system that is both fair and affordable. From today’s Times (£):
Sir William Beveridge’s original idea of welfare in Britain was that help was afforded in return for a contribution through national insurance. There was a direct link between paying in during good times and drawing on the pool of collective resources in bad times… The link between contribution and welfare has declined to the point of invisibility and it is understandable that there should be public trepidation when eligibility is no longer in any way earned.
It’s good to see contribution recognised as the critical issue in the welfare discussion. But it will be interesting to see where the discussion goes next. As we found during the National Conversation pilots in York, it’s one thing to agree that contribution is a key principle. Another to determine how that can be made to work in practice.
A great quote from Hugo Rifkind in The Times (29th January: £) which neatly sums up where politics, politics and our institutions are today:
“In the past couple of years, as everyone knows, almost every aspect of [the] Establishment has taken a bettering and our traditional deference, if it ever had any rationale, doesn’t any more. But without deference, representative democracy becones a harder sell, particularly when the public suddenly have the online tools to shout at you all the time, rather than just once every four or five years as in the past.
At the moment it’s an almost impossible sell. Like newspapers, like the BBC, like the churches and the schools, and everything else, our system of government is in the midst of an existential crisis of confidence. It doesn’t know what it is, or what it’s for, or what people want from it. So it has to ask. This is how I think we ought to understand our referendums, whatever they are about. As the latest manifestation of a panicked system grappling with itself. Struggling to get a grip, as with soap in the bath.”
Yesterday in his speech at Bluewater, David Cameron offered his latest ideas on how Britain can cut its welfare bill, calling for the country to return to the “first principles” of welfarism. This morning, the broadsheets returned their verdicts.
In The Daily Telegraph, Philip Johnston wonders what “first principles” the Prime Minister could mean. Was it the Beveridge Report (seventy years old this December) or something earlier? Whatever the case, Johnston welcomed Cameron’s ideas if they tackled dependency culture.
In The Guardian, there is anger. The leader paints a portrait of Cameron as an out-of-touch “gin-soaked colonel in his clubhouse” and talks of the Tories opening up “a new front in the class war”. Both the leader and Polly Toynbee accuse Cameron of getting his numbers wrong.
Yet, while there is an angry defence of the status quo, The Guardian does not offer ideas for change. Hugo Rifkind notes in today’s Times (£): “What does the British Left have to say about today’s welfare state? Not much. And sooner or later, it’s going to have to say something.” But then, according to Rifkind, no one is prepared to stick their neck above the parapet on welfare: “the big problem with the benefits debate is that neither Left nor Right dares to say what it really thinks.”
At the National Conversation we want to give people – across the political spectrum – a chance to say what they really think about welfare. It’s clear that we are overdue a sane and not a sanitised discussion.