The young are too entitled not enslaved

Following Cait Reilly’s legal triumph, it seems some believe the young should be protected from work.

So, thanks to a ruling at the Court of Appeal in London yesterday, unemployed graduate Cait Reilly has succeeded in legally challenging the UK government over its work-for-benefits scheme.

In July last year, Reilly took the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to court on the basis that working for Poundland for a few weeks was tantamount to ‘slavery’ and therefore contravened her ‘human rights’. Reilly’s case was rightly dismissed by the judge at the time who declared that ‘such a scheme is a very long way removed from the colonial exploitation of labour’. Quite right. Comparing working in Poundland to labouring on sugar plantations takes historical ignorance to spectacularly insulting levels.

Yet on Tuesday, the judge’s original verdict was overturned. A three-judge panel at the Royal Courts of Justice ruled that the secretary of state for work and pensions had acted unlawfully by not telling the unemployed enough about the penalties they faced and their right to appeal against being made to take unpaid work. On these narrow grounds, it was deemed unlawful to be required to work for benefits. The government has already amended the legal regulations to meet the court’s objections and has also announced it will appeal.

Nonetheless, the case is still seen as a major coup. Joanna Long, a member of campaigning group Boycott Workfare, captured the mood of Reilly’s supporters: ‘Today’s ruling is a victory for the people against a government which thought it could compel unemployed and sick people to work without pay, backed by a vicious regime of sanctions which made the poorest far poorer.’ Really? Only in this victim-centred age could doing a few shifts at Poundland be seriously compared to forced slavery.

What the ruling in favour of Reilly is not, however, is a victory for ‘the people’. Rather, it is a triumph for our culture of self-pity, narcissism and whining entitlement. The new ruling will further cushion and cosset young people, relieving them of any impositions or pressures. And it will bolster the infantile notion that young people must be protected from the demands of becoming economically independent or hard working. In the long run, this will do the development of young people far more damage than a few weeks working for benefits.

Originally, Reilly was claiming jobseeker’s allowance while volunteering at a pen museum in the hope of being offered a permanent position. So in this sense, she was not averse to doing something useful for society while receiving money from the public purse. This, effectively, is what the government’s work scheme is partly about. The original conception of the welfare state was, like an insurance policy, taking out during lean times what you put in during more affluent periods.

Today, the welfare state is seen as something very different. Welfare is now promoted and viewed as something people are automatically entitled to, whether you have contributed to that income or not. Not only did Reilly believe she was entitled to income that she hadn’t contributed to, but that she ought to be working in a museum. It wasn’t based on qualifications, criteria or availability of such work, but that she somehow automatically deserved it. This was a bit like those kids who trashed Comet during the riots because they were unsuccessful at obtaining a job there – they also felt they ought to be working there regardless of experience, ability or suitability.

In this sense, today’s ruling will bolster the idea held by some young people that the world really does owe them a living. The Reilly ruling seems to acknowledge officially that young people should not be expected to meet society’s requirement to work in case it damages their vulnerable self-esteem. It suggests that self-pity and a sense of entitlement is now far more laudable than simply overcoming life’s challenges or learning how to grow up.

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the court came to such a decision. For the past two decades, the state has been keen to show that adult autonomy is not something people should exercise too much. So while the ruling looks like a victory for people power-style leftism against a (mainly) Tory government, in truth it is a demand for the state to look after us. It is an acknowledgement that we should forgo individual sovereignty for a close relationship with the all-watching, all-checking and autonomy sapping state. Whereas genuine radicalism was always a demand for autonomy from state regulators, today’s radicals aspire to be more tightly bound to state institutions. Any excuse to bolster state legitimacy and authority over us, even at the expense of a Tory government, will always appeal to elite-minded, undemocratic judges. Reilly and her supporters demand to be treated like children. Is it any wonder that a paternalistic state will oblige?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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