This is my first draft, half-finished story – got a long way to go, but I read some other blogs and despair at my talent, so before I delete it in a fit of pique and despair, I’ll post it here.
The Day Britain Changed. You all remember it, right? The portentous headline that graced the newspapers the day the government first got really stuck into attacking “the benefit culture”. You all probably remember all the false starts that came before and after. Every paper desperately clambering over each other to declare the Welfare State dead, trying to stake their claim their first in a dying industry.
I’ll let you in on a secret. The Welfare State isn’t dead. But it is fucked. They’ve laid all the groundwork, set up all the institutions and even briefed everyone involved that when the time comes they can all join together and sweep away the ailing, weak, skeletal body of what passes for the Welfare State today. They’ve chipped away at it, slowly – ever so slowly. They’ve turned public opinion against it, at least in the parts of the country where they don’t need it. They’ve put the Departments in such financial straitjackets that they don’t struggle to get out of them anymore. They’ve “localised” services, and “ensured efficiency savings”, and made things “more agile” – what they mean is they’re killing it. At the same time as they’re giving free rein to the ultra-rich, the offensively rich, the literally have too much money than they have sense crowd because create wealth, apparently – only for each other, though but that doesn’t matter because the people who make decisions in this country and the too much money crowd are one and the same.
My name is Lily. I was raised on benefits that don’t exist anymore. I was the second in my family to go to university. I was on the dole for over two years before they asked me whether I’d like to sit on their side of the desk and work for them. So now I have a job, I work for the Department of Work and Entitlements. I know, I know. What a horrible American rebrand, right? At least you don’t have to look at it in big letters all day at work.
I spent two years trawling websites, and physical job centre boards (that do still exist, by the way) for the ten or so jobs that would be posted a month. I applied for every single one, even if it meant working up to my elbows in shit eighteen hours a day on less than what passes for minimum wage today. Every three days I’d have a face-to-face meeting with my Case Officer, and every day between that I’d have to type into the DWE website all the jobs I’d applied for. You needed at least five a day or your dole was cut. If you missed posting up your jobs once you got put on probation, and twice? Well they stopped your dole. Missing a posting meant you couldn’t eat for the foreseeable, so it was best to arrange your life around the postings. Have you noticed something? Yeah. There’d be about ten jobs a month put up, twenty a month was a real bumper crop. The economy was a fucking zombie. Nothing was happening. The companies that took a gamble and decided to hire people – folded. These offers now were more than likely because the guy doing it had died. That’s how things were, but the DWE didn’t recognise that. They still had the regulations that were out of date even when they were written. They made it as hard as possible to get any money off them. There was a big population of people living hand to mouth, without any help from the government. They’d steal scrap metal and sell it on, often to the people they stole it from and that would do them with enough rice and bread to eat for a couple of days. Rinse, and repeat. The Osbornevilles were full of people like that, and to be honest they were full of people claiming dole too. That’s what it had come to. Big tent cities in the inner-city parks.
Anyway, my point was the only way to keep your dole was to lie. You had to make up jobs to fill the empty spaces on your forms, because real jobs didn’t exist for you to apply for. So you’d create them, and type them in. You’d put whatever real job you could actually apply for at the top, and then fill the rest with job titles as convincing as you could muster: Human Resources Administrator at B&M Systems, Cleaning Operative at the Hilton Hotel, Sales Agent at Oak Furniture Superstore. You could reuse the same real job week after week; it acted like an umbrella for all the bunk ones you’d pad in after it. It was suspected, and I can tell you that it’s totally true now that I’m one of the people checking the lists, that you’d give as much lenience as possible to claimants. It was hard enough, and you know Case Officers are people too. They’re just people lucky enough to have a job. They understand how hard it is, and how strict the rules are. So give them a sign you’re not fully taking the piss and they’ll look the other way – having said that I’ve signed dole cheques for people in paint splattered overalls who smelt fucking toxic having just come from a job. I don’t care.
As I said, I went to University. A couple of years before people decided it was a total waste of time. My Mum insisted. We half-knew it was a lie even as I applied, that all the promises were empty and black inside. I worked my arse off in school to get the grades to be accepted (little did I know the grade system was a façade and the Universities were accepting anyone who was willingly enough to saddle themselves with all that debt); and I worked my arse off while I was there to get a First. It wasn’t worth it, boys and girls. Don’t bother. But, I do know all the big words and wanky theory that makes you seem like a real player. At least it did back in the day.
Let me tell you a story, well three stories. They’re all good stories. Let’s say they’re this Britain’s creation stories. It won’t take a minute. It’ll be over before you know it. You might feel a little bit of pressure, but you should be totally numb.
Once upon a time, way back in the annals of history there were two Germans called Karl and Friedrich. They were the best of friends. Both left Germany and travelled all over Europe. On their travels they saw people working long hours in jobs that were dangerous for very little pay. They saw people working in factories, and on farms. They saw people working in produce markets, and cleaning shoes. They saw everyone, working everywhere. They also saw the people above them, their bosses; the people who owned the businesses, or the land, or the building where these normal people worked. They saw the bosses crushing the working people under their heel, trying to drain more hours of them for less pay – constantly turning the press to get trickles of more money flowing into their own pockets. Greed drove them to make more and more money to satisfy a thirst that could never be slaked, and it also drove the normal people into the ground. Karl and Friedrich said “This can’t be right! Why is this happening? How can we change this?” So they went away, and they watched more people, and they wrote things down. Slowly, slowly, slowly they wrote books and spread them to people. To normal people (who couldn’t read so probably used them as doorstops), to the bosses and to the people in between. They’re books said “This isn’t right. This shouldn’t be happening. Here’s how to change it.” Not many people listened, but some did. Some years later, a cluster of people who had been listening – who had, in fact, based their entire lives and beliefs around Karl and Friedrich’s big doorstop books – picked up guns and knives and took power away from the bosses and the kings and took over power in a country that they said they would remake in Karl and Friedrich’s image. There wouldn’t be any more bosses. The bosses would be the workers. Everybody would be the same, and everybody would be happy. Everybody would live happily ever after.
Except, once the people who had listened were in power for a little while, some of them decided that they liked it more than they had expected. They wondered, now that they were the ones in power – why should power be shared with other people. So they clung to it, and when things didn’t go right they clung to it all the more and changed some of Karl and Friedrich’s ideas. As they clutched power tightly to their hearts, it changed them and they changed it. They had become very different, although they would never be able to see it. The only people who could see it were the normal people who were still working long hours, for little pay in dangerous jobs.
That was a nice fairy tale, right? Want to hear another? I could do this all day. Well, I’m in work later so I couldn’t but you get my drift.
Once upon a time, a time much like today but in the dark brown past, people were suffering. Some men in fancy suits had squandered away everybody’s money. For years and years before everybody was happy and everybody was spending money and with all the money air was pumped into a huge bubble in the sky. Some people couldn’t see the bubble at all, but some could see it and said that it would never burst. It did burst, and when it did people lost their jobs and their savings. The men who had done it jumped from buildings to hit the ground below. The people who had given them the money were left with nothing. People were hungry, and cold and lonely. Soon spread over the entire world and last for a very long time. People would wake up every day and say “Why can’t things just be like they used to? Why did all this have to happen?”, and then go to sleep without answering it. Rinse, and repeat. Nobody believed in anything anymore, least of all money.
Finally people in the country where it had all started got sick of it all, and booted the men who did it out of office, shouting “This is all your fault!” They let a man be their leader who tried with all his might to stop people believing in nothing. “Believe in me”, he said. “Believe in the person next to you”, he said. “Believe in the country”, he said. “Believe in something!” Around the same time a man from our country, who knew about these things, said “This man’s right! People are scared, and that’s the problem. They’re too scared to buy things, and other people are too scared to open shops and businesses. It’s because we’re all so scared that things are this bad. So let’s pretend not to be scared! If we pretend not to be scared, then things will get better and then we won’t have to be scared!” He wrote big books all about it, and people read them and said “Yeah! Why has no-one though of this before? This is brilliant.” And the leader in the country where it had all started said “This is exactly what I was trying to say. We have nothing to fear but fear itself, I said!” And the man from our country agreed. He said the best way to stop people being scared was for the leaders to act like they weren’t, and for the governments to buy things and give people jobs. As soon as ordinary people saw that the government wasn’t scared anymore, then slowly but surely they’d stop being scared.
They tried it, and it worked and people stopped being so frightened of everything. Every time something went wrong for the years after people would say “Remember the two men? They said that we shouldn’t be scared, so let’s not be.” And everyone lived happily ever after.
Well sort of. No-one lives happily ever after, because of that “ever after” bit. I guess this one is kind of a two-part story. You want the other half?
Once upon a time, about half way into the story I told you before, a man grew very worried about things. He looked across the world and he saw politicians and leaders spending money to give people jobs and he said but what about the people who already have jobs? Why do they have to pay for other people getting jobs? Matter-of-fact why should they pay for anything? People should just look after themselves. A woman who had ran away from the country in our first story, the country of people who had listened to Karl and Friedrich, said “Yeah!” and started to write big, big, bigger than doorstop books filled with stories about men who looked after themselves and only themselves and how this was good for everybody in the end.
More and more people thought that this was a good idea. They had jobs, and they didn’t want to share the money they made. They said “I’ve worked hard for this money. Why should I donate it to help other people? I want to make more money.” As people got richer and richer, more and more people decided that they should only look after themselves. It grew, and it grew until finally two politicians called Margaret and Ronald said “We’re going to stop what we’ve been doing, and we’re going to stop spending money.” They decided that giving people jobs wasn’t what was important, but that we should let people keep more of their own money and protect their savings instead.
It worked for a little while. People got rich, then richer, then richer, then eye-wateringly richer. Things that used to be done by the government were sold to rich people, and money flowed through everywhere – everywhere except the places that were poor to begin with. People forgot about these places, because they were drunk on their money. Soon the entire world followed what Margaret and Ronald did, and the money flowed everywhere and in every country handfuls of people got very, very rich. Even the country led by the people who had listened to Karl and Friedrich, said “We want this money!” and they started to listen to Margaret and Ronald.
Everybody lived happily ever after, apart from the poor people who grew in number; but nobody cared because some people were getting incredibly rich. They bought the television stations and the newspapers and they decided not to tell anyone about the poor people, because that way they could get even richer. It grew and it grew until it exploded.
Or, at least, the start of ‘The End’; because we’ve been living with the consequences of those three stories (but mostly the last one) for twenty years, and most normal people don’t know the stories or the men involved. And it was all men, mind.
I think I’m at the end of my story-telling tether. Maybe one more. Today we received the first explicit orders from central government that we had targets to meet. Some of the people I work with smiled apologetically and said that these targets have always been there for the higher-ups, but now everyone had to know and follow them.
The targets were simple. For every two people who comes to our desk every day – we have to kick one off benefits forever. We can do it legitimately, or (and this is in writing) we can manufacture reasonable doubt about their working arrangements.
We were told in the morning meeting, and then all made to sign non-disclosure agreements, in case we went to the press – like the press would care, anyway! This is the sort of stuff they’ve been claiming for on their sites for years.
All that I noticed was the slow erosion of the Welfare State suddenly becoming a fucking landslide.
I think it was peer pressure that stopped me whistleblowing straight away. I spent about two weeks doing what everyone else was doing. We’d spend all day throwing people off benefits, and looking guiltily at each other (well most of us would at least give it the dignity of looking guilty about it) and then at the end of day meeting, with us all sat in our coats, we’d report the numbers. Everybody hit 50%. Pamela would often report figures of 75%, but then again she would bring the Mail in everyday to reach at lunch, so that was to be expected.
I’d started out thinking that I could maybe cushion the impact. I could target the people who came in smelling of paint, or who came in with a clearly brand new pair of trainers that cost about eight weeks dole. These were both valid reasons to put down on their cancellation slips, by the way. I did this for a couple of days before I ran out, and I suddenly had to start kicking people off who desperately needed this money to live. After everyone, I began to get a knot in my stomach, like a ball of sick rage that this was happening; and worst of all I was being made to do it.
I realised I was ruining lives just to keep my job.