Some work of noble note may yet be done

It was Freud who identified the two basic human needs: work and love. Unfortunately, the rise of the ‘benefit culture’ has meant that many Britons have not satisfied the former of these, and its significance to the human condition has become undervalued.

This has come to the fore in the arduous task of tackling the national deficit. The matter was raised for discussion at the recent G20 summit in Toronto, and George Osborne has responded to this problem by announcing his intention to cut incapacity benefits by denying people the higher rate if tests reveal that they are actually able to work. This move would serve the dual purpose of addressing both the deficit and the languorous ‘benefit society’ for which the country has been criticised.

Of course this is an extremely sensitive topic, and one which must be approached with the requisite caution. The grave consequences of making the wrong decision require little explanation. This was demonstrated all too well by previous attempts to reduce spending on incapacity benefits. A report compiled by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau has illuminated numerous errors, revealing cases of people who were registered as fit to work despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, or advanced Parkinson’s disease. Needless to say, we must not allow such mistakes to be made again.

However, we should not allow the prospect of such aberrations to frighten us into inaction. If the necessary safeguards are put in place, and testing is carried out conscientiously, the benefits to be gained by society would outweigh those lost by the individual. Substantial expertise must be invoked in devising such tests, which should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny before they are treated as decisive.

One of the major challenges facing the authors of such a test is the impact of mental illness on a person’s ability to work. Recognised psychiatric illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder can be extremely debilitating and can interfere materially with the sufferer’s daily life. This should certainly not be overlooked because of the difficulties in measuring the extent of this disability.

Shockingly, the £1.8 billion given in incapacity benefit to those suffering from certain mental illnesses has been said to bolster George Osborne’s case without further qualification. This figure needs to be reduced just as much as that provided in cases of physical illness, but is certainly not the waste of money that proponents of this argument would have us believe. This view is retrogressive and does little to minimise the stigma which has traditionally blighted the issue of mental health. This does constitute a “genuine need” of the kind the incapacity benefit was originally designed to meet.

The proposed cut would promote the interests of those whom they were introduced to protect. It would represent an important step in ensuring that incapacity benefits actually support those whom they were intended to support. In pruning the number of people who receive benefits, the focus will be returned to the core group of people who are genuinely unable to work to support themselves. This would be helpful in dispelling the negative image surrounding benefit recipients as they would be required to demonstrate the legitimacy of their benefit claims. The taxpayer should have fewer qualms about paying a bill whose merits have been empirically tested.

This cut could well provide the invigoration necessary to revive Britain from the slumber of its so-called ‘benefit society’. The message is clear: If you are fit to do some work, then it is no longer acceptable to leech off the labours of the rest of society. In a time of economic crisis, the country must unite and work collectively to address our deficit. We simply cannot afford to fund those who favour the parasitic lifestyle despite being capable of working.

It is likely that those who are found to be capable of working would begin receiving Jobseekers’ Allowance. The requirements of this type of benefit are far more stringent under the current regime, and as such more pressure would be placed on such people to find work. This would constitute another vital step in the endeavour to rejuvenate the national economy.

Addressing the G20 summit, George Osborne provided an apt summary of the aims of the proposed welfare reform, explaining the need to ensure that the incapacity benefit “protects those in genuine need, protects those with disabilities and protects those who can’t work but also encourages those who can work into work.” Apparently, in the words of Tennyson, “some work of noble note may yet be done”.

Has Obama misplaced his priorities in relieving General McChrystal?

Change: the concept by which Barack Obama has chosen to define his presidency. We have certainly seen evidence of this in the past week in the shape of his replacement of General McChrystal with General Petraeus as the American commander in Afghanistan. However, he has been keen to emphasise that in this case he has limited his action, with the move constituting a “change in personnel but…not a change in policy.”

This statement has been liberally quoted by the press, but does it necessarily convey the appropriate message?  The obvious implication is that the policy is sound, but that General McChrystal is no longer the right man to implement it. Is this really the case, or is the actual problem more fundamental than the President is willing to admit? Does the real rationale behind this action have more to do with domestic politics than the war effort?

In order to establish whether the policy needs to be reassessed, let us consider some of its features. The Western forces are seeking to establish a model of governance based upon the US system, which has been criticised as oppressively centralised, and as responsible for the marginalisation of many sections of Afghan civil society. One need only look to the debacle that was the 2009 presidential election, characterised by electoral fraud and poor security, to know that this is not working for Afghanistan. Perhaps Obama should not have been so hasty in dismissing the need to re-evaluate policy. Institutional reform, at least, should assume a prominent position in the list of strategic priorities.

General McChrystal recognised that this could not realistically be achieved through military force alone, and highlighted the need for interaction and negotiation with the civilian population. His strategy highlighted the importance of boosting morale within the country, and ‘winning over’ the Afghan civilians in order to secure lasting change. He has demonstrated his practical commitment to this approach by actively working to reduce the number of civilian casualties. This earned him the crucial trust of the Afghan authorities. Co-operation will undoubtedly be necessary if the Taliban are to be suppressed. In that respect, the continued promotion of this policy seems desirable.

If one pays regard to the more cynical analyses of this change, it appears that the best interests of both the military and the Afghan civilians have occasionally strayed from the forefront of the President’s mind. A principal criticism directed at the Obama administration is that it has been characterised by indecision. Barack Obama’s expeditious handling of this incident presented the perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate his capacity for decisive action. Needless to say, this is not a condemnable end in itself, although if this was the President’s motivation then it is in questionable taste.

Obama claims that this is not a matter of his having suffered a personal offence, although his private outrage at the remarks has been noted. Of course the remarks were personally insulting, and he would have felt disrespected. It would, however, have conveyed unpalatably totalitarian overtones if Obama were seen to have relieved the General on this basis.

Far more sinister are the allegations that this move was politically motivated in the light of General Petraeus’ potential candidacy in 2012. However this claim does seem rather far-fetched and unsympathetic.

As Obama presents the situation, it would appear that the bottom line is that division must be eradicated. This is perfectly commendable, given the magnitude of the task facing the troops in Afghanistan. The President has also presented the General’s lack of judgement as his fatal flaw. It is no secret that morale, both in Afghanistan and in the West, has been low for some time: a particularly acute issue during the worst month in terms of casualties in the whole of the nine-year war. Obama’s concern to improve confidence in the war effort has been demonstrated by this controversial move.

Ostensibly this is his primary motivation, although it is clear that other considerations may actually have prevailed. His desire to appear to be a strong and decisive leader seems to have superseded his specific concern for the situation an Afghanistan, and for the coalition forces.

However, we know that this news has not been well received in Afghanistan. General McChrystal had established a solid and amicable relationship with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, who has expressed regret at the General’s demise. He is, however, open to the idea of working collaboratively with General Petraeus, who has achieved respect in Afghanistan through his much-lauded success in Iraq. This appears to be the crux of the issue – General McChrystal’s ideas are sound, but the infrastructure is not. If General Petraeus can expand on the excellent work which General McChrystal began, then it is right that this particular policy should remain in force. Though that is not to say that it could not benefit from reappraisal, which is certainly necessary in the broader context of governance reform.

In his consistent endeavours to be all things to all men, Obama risks overlooking the overarching issues and occasionally missing the mark. It remains to be seen what the impact of this ‘change in personnel’ will be; and whether, contrary to the President’s outward confidence, strategic reform will be forthcoming under Petraeus’ command. General Petraeus’ involvement in the formulation of the contemporary policy suggests that this is indeed rather unlikely.

Nonetheless, if the Vanity Fair letters page is to be trusted, I gather that Petraeus is ‘adorable’. Let’s hope the Afghans agree.

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