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The British press hit a new low last week. In a move I found eerily reminiscent of Nazi attempts to evaluate vulnerable people according to cost, the Telegraph provided an online calculator to help its readers work out how much of their taxed salary goes on “bankrolling the welfare state”. As the article accompanying it insisted, “millions are claiming benefits without ever having to look for work, helping to push the tax burden to the highest point since the Second World War”. Tax cuts were presented as the only answer – and welfare where the axe should fall.
Out of interest, I entered an (entirely fictional) income of £150,000 a year. The calculator told me that I would pay a total of £60,222 in tax, of which £18,888 (31.4% of the total) would be spent on welfare (not, note, schools or hospitals); 13.5% (£8,126) would support people in old age; and a further 6.4% would go on sickness or disability benefits; 2.8% of my taxes would support family and children; 1.9% on housing; and a tiny 0.2% on bereavement support and unemployment benefits. Finally, 6.7% would go on unidentified ‘social protection’ including the cost of administering benefits and enforcing the legislation.
None of this came as much of a shock (and I gather many of its assumptions are wrong), though readers may be surprised to read how much we spend on the elderly.
The Telegraph’s Editor will no doubt defend his calculator on the grounds that transparency and accountability are essential for good government. But this is deeply disingenuous – not only are the totals spent on all aspects of government expenditure readily available, but there is no good reason why welfare spending should merit this more than other expenditure.
After all, with a simple change of the algorithm we could have discovered what percentage of our taxes are spent on the vast sums wasted by Dido Harding during the pandemic, the ballooning costs of the Conservatives’ hard Brexit, Liz Truss’ catastrophic mini budget, let alone Boris Johnson’s enormous legal fees.
But the Telegraph’s hidden agenda is all too clear: we’re too heavily taxed because of all that money spent on the welfare state, and this fiendish little calculator will show you all too clearly who is to blame.
Like much of this Government’s policies, the prejudice that lies behind this innovation fails to understand the complexities of human life. Not only will most of the Telegraph’s readers eventually retire (if they’re not already retired), some will go on to claim a state pension. Many will have children and be in receipt of child benefit. And, like the rest of Britain, a quarter of the newspaper’s readers will also belong to families with a disabled member (with many others going on to become disabled or parent a disabled child).
Stephen Unwin delves deep into the intellectual traditions and cultural mindset that produced the Nazis’ ‘wild euthanasia’ of people with disabilities, and finds we have not yet put those prejudices to rest
It’s almost as if the Editor thinks that his readers are somehow immune to what Hamlet calls “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”: frailty, disability and old age are fundamental to the human condition. What’s more, no doubt, many of the Telegraph’s readers work in the public sector, and all benefit from public expenditure in countless other ways.
It’s not this, however, which was shocking.
The real reason was the way in which the Telegraph’s calculator reminded us of some of the most repulsive policies in 20th Century history – especially attitudes to the public cost of supporting disabled people. For, unlike the irrational hatred that shapes racism and sexism, attacks on disabled people have all too often dressed themselves in the clothes of good housekeeping.
We can see this in the early arguments in favour of eugenics, whereby social scientists were eager to reduce the cost of care. Indeed, this was one of the chief goals of the ‘colony movement’ by which disabled people, especially learning-disabled people, were packed off to remote colonies with farms, workshops and unpaid labour designed to make them cost-neutral. Radicals argued for sterilisation of so-called feeble-minded people to reduce expenditure in the future, and large poorly-funded hospitals were favoured right up to the 1980s – above all because they offered an economy of scale.
Nazi Germany went even further and justified its murder of as many as 250,000 “useless eaters” on the grounds of cost, with a poster claiming that a man “suffering from a hereditary defect” cost “the People’s Community’ 60,000 Reichsmarks during his lifetime”. Meanwhile, school textbooks asked children to calculate the money to be saved if support was withdrawn – “an idiot in an institution costs around four Reichsmarks a day. How much would it cost if he has to be cared for there for 40 years?”
One particularly vile Nazi statistician later “worked out that 70,273 ‘disinfections’ had saved the Reich 885,439,980 marks over a period of 10 years and that Germany had been saved 13,492,440 kilograms of meat and wurst”. Sausages, eh?
For many of us, it’s personal. Disabled people like my profoundly disabled 26-year-old son, the Telegraph suggests, are simply too expensive for the country to support and the money should go on tax cuts instead. It’s yet another attempt to rip up the social contract, the unspoken understanding which makes for a decent society. Without it, as history shows, the mouth of Hell opens wide.
The Telegraph doesn’t quite go as far as asking how much food could have been bought with the money spent on disabled people, but it’s an utterly disgraceful line of inquiry designed to stir up hatred and division. I don’t expect the Editor to apologise, but his newspaper has shown yet again that it knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.