Wednesday evening, taking a main route from the city centre towards home and passing along the way the entrance to the city's A&E department, one who seems to be merely a girl, but perhaps she is 16 years old, is wheeled out on one of those hospital wheelchairs by two men, at least one of whom appears to be a member of the police. Before leaving her, in the wheelchair on the side of a busy street - and they do leave her - they roughly rearrange her slumped form, so that she does not fall outwards onto the pavement. She is clearly under the influence of some illegal substance or other, probably heroin given her catatonic state. And there she is left, to fend for herself after an abandonment that is presumably not illegal even if it is shockingly immoral. A known user, perhaps? A junkie repeatedly in and out of A&E? But what difference does that make here? Whether or not she might benefit from more tender treatment than has been shown to her in this instance (and probably she would not, with poor social provision of all those layers of support from which she would benefit), we - the passers-by and the public at large - could only benefit from not bearing witness to such blatant disregard for humanity and being hardened just a little bit more.
The British government has just announced that there is to be a further £10 billion in cuts to welfare provision. And nothing will be said or done to prevent it. For, as we look at the lives of many of those who live on handouts from the state, we have much the same attitude as we do when we look at the life slumped forward on the hospital wheelchair: what's the point of helping people who will not help themselves?; what's the good of welfare when it has been shown, time and again, to not only not alleviate but actually increase the numbers of people who seem unable to stand on their own two feet? But these questions are utterly misguided. For, whatever vestiges remain to us of the welfare state, are the legacy of a social and political vision in which welfare payments played only a part; a social and political vision in which communities were fostered and full employment was the goal of government. In such a vision, welfare payments had their role, but such were the opportunities, at least being striven for by government, for people to earn a wage, enough to buy a house to live in and support a family in a place that felt like home, that there was almost no question of devising sticks and carrots to stop people "scrounging" off the state. Welfare payments, such as they are in this country (that is, degradingly small), are one of the last and dwindling remnants of this social and political vision. Of course they don't "work"! (the society in which they worked is long gone); of course they don't "help"! (there is no help to be had in a society bent only on damage limitation of its people). But, even if we never again seek to put in place all of the rest of that social democratic vision that is now nearly disappeared, welfare payments at least prevent us from bearing witness to a blatant disregard for humanity that will harden us even more than we have been.