“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Gandhi.
The British view themselves as a caring lot. Yet, on Gandhi’s measure, our right wing government are staggeringly far removed from greatness. What fills me with even more horror than the current leadership’s dishonesty and incompetence is the indifference to suffering in their right-wing policies. This ‘Compassion Gap’ is directed to a specific group, our modern-day Oliver Twists – those employed and unemployed who ask for help because they struggle to survive. My father was a kind man – he was the first to assist friends in need and he devoted every Christmas morning to visiting the wards of our local hospitals. He was also a paid-up Tory and when nursing staff, like those whose hospitals he visited, asked for a pay rise, he would castigate them as ‘wretched, greedy scroungers’.
The miserable list
Of course, we can always find Tories who do not endorse these callous policies. I’m addressing trends here. I’m not excusing the attitudes discussed either, I’m just exploring the rationale behind them. Pick any random year and you’ll find their handiwork. 2013-17 saw multiple cuts to the disability allowance and the introduction of the bedroom tax. In 2019 the UN condemned the UK government for policies that inflicted needless misery. Currently 4.3million children live in poverty. Rough sleeping is up by 165%. Food banks use has risen by 33% and benefits sanctions have led to many claimants’ deaths through poverty or suicide. In 2021, despite severe Covid related hardship, the government voted against extending free school meals to disadvantaged children. It took a rapping from Marcus Rashford for them to U-turn. Their latest sleight of hand is to withdraw the extra £20 Universal Credit (UC) lifeline, a cut that will affect approximately 5.8 million people.
Some Tories are worried – Nigel Mills, MP for Amber Valley, held a fringe event at the conference on whether the party could be damaged by the perception of their UC cuts as “cruel and harsh”. But, as with the Taliban takeover, the concern was not about whether they really are ‘the nasty party’ but about optics – how they ‘come across’.
What’s behind the Compassion Gap?
The ready answer is that it derives from the privilege enjoyed by our right-wing leaders. They operate in a world of extreme financial security, protected from real, raw suffering and this psychological separation is bolstered by their belief, fostered by the elite education system, in their own intrinsic superiority. Our leaders can’t empathise with ordinary suffering then because they lack any direct experience of it and see it as typically the preserve of the ‘lower ranks’ anyway. It is this double detachment that explains obscenities such as the Bullingdon Club tradition of setting light to fifty-pound notes in front of homeless people.
Privilege only goes some way towards explaining the compassion gap though because the same attitudes are found in some of the rank-and-file right wing community who were not born into privilege. Also, some have successfully bootstrapped themselves out of the poverty they now disdain and so have relevant experience which the elite lack.
A Tory conference 21 visitor, when asked if she could live on £75 per week UC, said that indeed she could because ‘she doesn’t smoke, doesn’t play bingo and manages her money properly’. In place of awareness of the real hardship the cuts will cause, there was only that ugly thread of contempt which runs so visibly through right wing thinking.
We can’t ignore the role of the right-wing press, of course, but they have been drip-feeding pitiless ridicule of the ‘have nots’ for so long that the public’s attitudes are partially fixed now. If the tabloids had a political lobotomy and suddenly stopped the ‘scrounger’ narrative it might help, but the likely immediate reaction would be for the Right to accuse them of having ‘gone snowflake’ and look elsewhere for affirmation of their grievances against ‘the undeserving’ – for their ‘hate the needy’ fix.
The slide from non-intervention to not caring
The compassion gap seems grounded in the Right’s attachment to free market ideology. The idea of the free market does have a supposed moral basis as an ‘anti-poverty’ programme – economic prosperity will benefit all and lift up the poor just as a rising tide lifts all boats. But here the two part ways because compassion is intrinsically related to action –
‘Compassion is a sentiment rooted in an empathic response which prompts an altruistic, authentic desire to help”, according to the Association for Psychological Science (APS).
By contrast, free market ideology advocates a form of inaction, namely non-intervention. Since economic growth is viewed as the solution to society’s problems, the market must be left alone to generate aspiration in each individual towards achieving wealth. State meddling inhibits this process by removing incentive and creating dependency. It’s “not the government’s job to deal with poverty”, to quote the Tory conference, 21.
Welfare cuts serve as a ‘test’ and the individual, if ignored by the state, will ‘self-correct’ using their own initiative to escape poverty. The £20 UC cut, together with the National Insurance (NI) hike and post pandemic inflation will plunge millions into further poverty. Yet non-intervention remains the solution:
“Is the answer to their hopes and dreams just to increase their benefits? … people mustn’t lean on the state” Sunak, Tory conference, 21
A free-market ideology where the notion that assistance damages motivation is the poisonous first step towards emotional and moral indifference. ‘I have a legitimate reason not to alleviate your suffering which is that it wouldn’t help you’. In this sense, free market non-intervention has callous indifference built into it. This attitude assumes that not helping the vulnerable will make them learn to stand on their own two feet. Demonstrably not true!
Non-intervention encourages moral indifference but also depends on the idea of ‘freedom’. The Right ignores the vast array of determining factors that constrain people’s opportunities and life chances and instead insist we are free to act otherwise –
“The logic behind the Tories welfare cuts is that people choose to be poor”: The Independent.
For many rank-and-file interviewees at the Tory conference, the greatest feature of their ideology is “the individual’s freedom to better themselves … through hard work and effort”: Tory conference, 21.The reasoning here is that:
‘Because financial assistance undermines your motivation, it prevents you from exercising your freedom to better yourself. Ergo, the more financially squeezed you are, the stronger your motivation to exercise this choice’.
Furthermore, freedom entails responsibility and this is the entry point for the ‘scrounger’ narrative – since people can choose (through hard work and thrift) to escape poverty, then if they fail, they must have brought this predicament on themselves. Here poverty is viewed as not only as a lifestyle choice and a moral failing but as a deliberate attempt to take advantage of others. And where people feel exploited, compassion is, again, usurped by contempt and anger –
“When we evaluate an individual to be responsible for negative outcomes, we tend to feel very little compassion and a lot of anger”: (Weiner, 1993, American Psychologist, 48).
This goes some way towards explaining the Right’s grotesque reduction of those in need to a few monstrous caricatures – the ‘drug taking, i-Phone wielding thieves who play the system and who’d sell their kids for crack or a bit of lip enhancement’.
Toxic suspicion transforms even the most ostensibly deserving cases – the working, single parent food bank user with three kids etc – into manipulative spongers who cannot warrant sympathy because they are deliberately leeching the taxpayer’s hard-earned wealth.
Work, disdain and ‘playing the game’
So beliefs about non-intervention, free will and responsibility all contribute to the compassion gap. But it is widened further by the Right’s reverence for wealth creation and their glorification of self-interest. In this ideology there is a primary focus on the economy and work incentives together with a total absence of shame about wealth accumulation. Work and wealth creation is perceived as ennobling, workers become fetishized as units of growth and our primary value becomes what we are capable of producing.
Those who don’t succeed in contributing (or simply don’t aspire) to these core values become ‘problematic’. The very existence of ‘the needy’ contradicts and hence poses a threat to the ‘free market ethos’ by shouting a reminder that it doesn’t work properly. That ‘all boats don’t rise’ with wealth creation is an implicit criticism of the core ideology. Intransigent poverty and the suffering it causes become an embarrassment to be tolerated or held in contempt – if ‘material success’ is society’s benchmark then its ‘stubborn failures’ must, according to paranoid right wing thinking, simply be actors pretending to be ‘needy’ whilst plotting to steal the nation’s resources.
The lazy, grabbing scrounger who fails to ‘play the game’ is the Right’s worst nightmare realised because it not only haunts them with its implicitly judgemental presence but threatens to upend the entire system – such fecklessness must be condemned because if we all became scroungers then free market capitalism could collapse.
Those who ‘do not play the game’ but instead depend on the state are the ‘other’ or ‘outgroup’ and this tribal feature of right-wing thinking stokes further indifference, contempt and lack of empathy. When asked why the UK had fared so badly in the pandemic, the conference interviewees laid the blame squarely with the group perceived as ‘other’ – in this case, those who are too feckless and inept to manage themselves properly. According to one, the reason for the UK’s high Covid cases is that:
“There is a group in society which tends to have more self-destructive habits”. For another, it was due to a “failure of individual responsibility in following government guidelines”.
The disdain evident in these flawed attitudes is clear – Covid sufferers tended to bring it upon themselves because they simply didn’t try hard enough and therefore don’t deserve our sympathy.
I’ve suggested that the compassion gap is linked to the Right’s protection of its core beliefs about wealth creation and individual freedom. Compassion is withheld from the needy because they are viewed as essentially free to better themselves and contribute to prosperity. Non-intervention is viewed as the approved tactic because it motivates them to exercise their freedom.
Choice also entails culpability. So, when non-intervention fails, as it so often does, the failure is explained away as ‘laziness, incompetence and a malign desire to exploit others’. The ‘needy’ become the ‘outgroup’ – objects of contempt and resentment who, when they fail to ‘buy into’ the terms of free market wealth creation, also threaten to undermine the Right’s core values. In this system, neglect and moral indifference become their own rationale. One of the greatest prizes to be won in moving on from right wing values is for society to finally jettison an ideology that prevents it from treating its weakest members with the care and compassion they deserve.
This way we can move closer to achieving Gandhi’s true measure of greatness.
Ed: West England Bylines cares deeply about the crisis in social care, which was highlighted in Barbara Morrison’s article back in August.