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Monday, December 17, 2012 

Nick Clegg is unsustainable.

When a politician says a current item of spending is unsustainable, you can be almost certain that they are lying.  Last time round it was public sector pensions, ministers claiming something had to be done, when Lord Hutton's report was clear that overall costs were due to fall, not rise.  Today Nick Clegg claimed that the welfare system was in danger of becoming unaffordable, with the economy tripling in size since the 1970s while welfare spending has gone up seven-fold.  This might well be true, but this ignores two key points: first that spending on unemployment/sickness benefits amount to only 3% of GDP, and second that spending on welfare overall, including pensions, has levelled off in recent years.

Clegg's entire speech was, as could be expected from someone desperately trying to claim he's done anything other than prop up a Conservative government for the last two and a half years, filled with arguments along the same lines.  Straw men abounded: there are apparently some on the left who think benefits are an automatic right with no responsibilities, and that it's oppressive and discriminatory to assume those with health problems or a "difficult background" can "make something of their lives".  To call this rich from a politician who's gone along with the introduction of a work programme that doesn't work, and who has done nothing to hold ATOS to account, even when they have offices in buildings with limited disabled access, risks understating the levels of chutzpah of involved.

Even more laughable, which takes some doing, was Clegg's claim that opposing the 1% rise in benefits for the next three years doesn't "make rational sense".  As Paul over on Though Cowards Flinch has been pointing out, it made perfect rational sense last year to George Osborne when he decided benefits should rise at the same rate as inflation; then he wanted to protect those "who are not able to work because of their disabilities and those, who through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and are trying to find work".  What had changed this time?  Simply that Osborne and friends felt they were on safe ground in smearing every benefit claimant as a scrounger, and so could put up a political dividing line between themselves and Labour.  Clegg, naturally, went along with it, and much of his speech recycles the exact same language used by the Tories, to the point where he aped Cameron's "without hope or responsibility/aspiration".

The one point he made that did have something resembling a kernel of truth was the observation that "[W]hen two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work then it has to be changed or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all".  This though is based on the misconception that out of work benefits are generous; I don't think I've seen a single columnist or newspaper editorial point out that as Jobseeker's Allowance for the over 25s is currently £71 a week, if Osborne's uprating takes place those out of work can look forward to an extra 71 pence a week from next April.  It's true that when other benefits are taken into consideration alongside JSA or ESA that the picture isn't quite as bleak; housing benefit, council tax benefit and child benefit for those who have a family alter the picture somewhat, but they don't change the fact that the system is often very far from generous, and will be even less so once the £26,000 cap comes in, ignoring exceptional individual circumstances.

Much of the rest of the speech was given over to claims of how everything the Lib Dems have done in coalition has been rooted in the centre ground, a sure sign of desperation from a party which gained support at the last election because, err, they were rightly seen as being to the left of centre.  It can't help but remind of Aneurin Bevan's aphorism that we know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road.  In Clegg's case it would certainly be a relief for us all.

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