Idleness is the strangest of Beveridge’s five Giants, an amorphous shapeshifter in comparison with the terrible lumbering colossus Want. It appears last in Beveridge’s sequence, a place usually reserved for the most baleful of adversaries — Death upon its pale horse, for instance, among the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
While little is achieved without hard work and personal responsibility, the narrative around idleness has been cursed since the Eighties, largely because the conditions of the post-war consensus (partly established by Beveridge) have been dismantled from above. The poor are expected to honour their side of a social contract that no longer exists and was destroyed without their consultation for the great profit of others.
The Tory rhetoric of “get on your bike” did not just fail to motivate but seemed designed to demoralise, as any gaslighting would. Here was a form of magical thinking that we might now call “manifestation”, but this was a particularly unholy form of magic, given it was being proposed by many of those who had presided over the de-industrialisation of the areas and populations they were now hectoring for their “idleness”.
This attitude persisted longer than might be expected, with the tabloids providing salacious moral panics around single mothers and benefits cheats. These were designed to enrage anyone striving to work through increasingly precarious conditions. The problem was that, unlike money, moral lessons do trickle down. In place of the now-dishonoured social contract came a society run by and for rentiers and lenders, a place where tax evasion and asset-stripping were not as rare as they may or should have been.
What incentive is left for those struggling to patch together a living wage from what had once been side-hustles, who have little job security in the age of zero-hour contracts, where the differentiation between work and life has been obliterated, where effective unions and collective bargaining are for most industries ancient history, where savings will be eaten away by inflation, where there is a chasm between wages and affording a home, where an accident or sickness might spell financial ruin, and having a child is an unaffordable luxury? What moral instruction about idleness and hard work are they expected to believe in?
Again, Beveridge is instructive here. For all his paternalism, he was right in identifying that one of the primary ills of his time was not just unemployment but casual employment, which trapped many people in an inescapable cycle of poverty. Worryingly, this trend of “flexibility” appears to have returned, and even when there is relatively secure employment, the results can be disastrous, calling to mind Mr Micawber’s sterling advice in Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2020-21. The same study states that “75% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works”. This was the environment I grew up in, watching my parents work hard and with great dignity only to be punished at each turn. This was echoed in the pride and resilience of our town in Northern Ireland, which was not so much left behind as scuttled. One of the major factors was institutionalised sectarianism, against Catholics, in almost every aspect of that society as well as the murderous bloodshed of the Troubles that had erupted. Having to listen to lectures, full of callous piety, about the idle poor from the idle rich added insult to injury. Across the UK, the situation remains, with condescending talk of “populism” from elites, who switch around their seating arrangements periodically.
Many politicians and commentators have the luxury of ignoring how most people live, never mind those who live below the poverty line. There are, however, groups of people paying to the poor, which brings us to the reason why the Giant of Idleness is so destructive. When the best prospects for young people in a city or town are stagnation through unemployment or badly paid jobs with no prospects of career or life advancement, the mind turns to other routes of betterment. Fringe groups such as gangs and drug-dealers fill the vacuum, offering a way out and a way up, as corrosive as they are. When society fails to utilise talent and drive, more nefarious entrepreneurial agents will take advantage.
In the town where I grew up, paramilitaries served this role. Initially, recruitment was organic. There was a low-level though bloody civil war, which affected every aspect of life, and harassment, discrimination and the massacre of civilians sent many into the arms of Republicans and Loyalists. Now in deprived areas of Northern Ireland, even maintaining the pretence of a cause has largely fallen away for these groups, who to varying degrees have embraced gangsterism. I was watching the Northern Irish news one evening with a friend when a well-known paramilitary and “community spokesman” appeared and gave a talk on “the plague” of drugs in Loyalist neighbourhoods. My friend burst out laughing and informed me that the gentleman was their first point of contact when procuring substances.
The Troubles may have abated, or rather been placed in a medically induced coma, but power-sharing is paralysed, the communities are still largely segregated, and the fundamental economic and social issues go unacknowledged and unsolved. Poverty is endemic in many areas of Northern Ireland. In a sense, the conflict and division continue in an even more degenerated form. First as tragedy, then as farce.
In the Nineties, I saw this process first-hand. Many of my childhood friends were bright, sometimes brilliant, young men who had few legitimate paths open to them. The paths they chose, while they were underage admittedly, were an abomination. One of them killed a man, a father of four, outside a Chinese restaurant one night. Another was exiled from the city for drug-dealing. I lost count of how many ended up damaged by seeking escape through drink and drugs. With all of Beveridge’s Giants, there’s a haunting sense of contingency. My suspicion as to why Idleness is placed last is that it’s the one ill where, at its worst, one conspires in the ruin of oneself and those around them.
Northern Ireland is a place that has been continually othered for decades by the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. While it is a unique province in many ways, it is not quite as distant as people would like to believe. I see similar dynamics at work in London gangs and with Islamist extremists in terms of how and who they recruit or groom. In county lines cases, I’ve witnessed a familiar pattern, not just in the incentivising of drug-dealing and evasion of the police, but in the use of drugs as a temporary “escape” from places where there is little to do.
We were those kids and the devil made plenty of work for us. If we’d been approached then with sanctimonious lectures, or panaceas like a community centre, or “just talk to your friends about your feelings” platitudes, we’d have replied with laughter and scorn because even as children, we knew that, for things to change, there had to be a fundamental reassessment of the way the entire society had been stacked and who was benefiting. In our inarticulate way, we knew that it wasn’t a question of work or idleness but the right work and the right idleness, and that, ultimately, though we didn’t then know its name, it was decadence that we had to avoid, by which I mean, doing that which is harmful even catastrophic to oneself, either as an individual or a society. And this is why Idleness will be the last, and not the first, Giant to go. Only when we have begun to confront all the other Giants will this final one begin to collapse.