I met Sam* on a cold, stormy Welsh November night, almost two years ago now. A young, articulate and well-dressed lady in her early 30s, Sam was decidedly out of place in the dirty, piss and vomit-stained custody suite I was working at. Had I met her on the street, I would never have suspected that her fashionable light brown jumper hid arms stained by track marks, a pinpoint history of years of intravenous drug abuse.
Sam was an addict, and as my more experienced colleague told me, if you’ve never seen an addict, the first is going to be a tough one. And tough it indeed was. For the next twelve hours, until a pale sun rose over Cardiff Bay, I accompanied Sam through the depth of her addiction as she went from crying to pleading to throwing things at me and having to be restrained by custody staff. Sam could change tone at the drop of a hat. Pleading a second ago for drugs as she began detoxing and her eyes went from the empty miotic dots to the deep, pleading circles of opioid withdrawal mydriasis, she could in the next moment be threatening. “Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you?”, she would scream. She would confabulate stories about her family connections one moment and talk about her street gang links in the next. And a moment later, she would be back tugging at our heartstrings.
Sam and the other two dozen or so addicts that I encountered during my work were some of my most memorable clients. The personality of an addict, the quick changes, the ferocity and the monomaniacal focus on the sole goal of obtaining the drug mixed with occasional displays of uncommon and unexpected wit and cleverness so strictly limited to getting more smack or coke was enigmatic and fascinating to me. The addict’s mindset is a unique one. Addicts are perfect utilitarians – they change character to suit the person they’re talking to, they shift from begging to threatening, and back to begging, and all throughout this, every word is a lie but those begging for their next dose.
And my colleague was right. The first one was tough. So was the one after and the one after that… and so on. Sam and the others, writhing in the pain of the withdrawal in the medical room, throwing up into the cold chromium toilet bowl, screaming and raging – these are images that have stayed with me for the years past.
And you can imagine how distressing it is when I see a whole nation starting to display the deceptive personality of an addict.
The financial crisis and the necessary downsizing of benefits has brought the issue of Britain’s state-dependent millions to the fore. Suddenly, as the state threatens to cut their lifelines, they speak up (usually in the Guardian). We hear reports of people threatening to commit suicide because they may lose their benefits. Of families starving because their benefits are cut. Of the government’s break with decency as it tries desperately to save where it can. Of twitter celebrity and cancer sufferer Alice Pyne and of Tory class hatred, the latter argument penned by the people’s hero from her Tuscan villa.
And the state has, indeed, done a horrible thing. A horrible, reprehensible thing.
Not in withdrawing benefits or implementing cuts. No – the real crime was sixty years of the so-called ‘welfare state’, a cloud-cuckoo delusion that always rode on buying votes and on grandious political statements, and never on a shred of reality. The real crime was letting millions languish in state dependence. The real crime was murder – killing ambition and hope for a better life with a monthly handout. The real crime was theft – stealing independence and initiative. The real crime was bribery – paying obedient serfs a generous annuity, the price of their dreams and of their futures. And, of course, their votes.
There are some people who contemplate the welfare state as some sort of giant conspiracy, aimed at a socialist-style takeover of the West. I never believed in those conspiracy theories, mainly because a very careful reading of the biographies of Bevan and his purported co-conspirators revealed a stunning paucity of intellect, in particular economic understanding, among the forefathers of welfarism. These principle-driven crusaders had no regard for what they were doing. And they might be absolved, for they have, really, acted upon one of humanity’s noblest impulses: that of lifting up the weak and helping the injured and sick.
It is the subsequent governments that I accuse of the crimes of the welfare state. For once it was visible that welfarism was creating dependence, they stood at the crossroads between being the people’s elected servants – or masters of serfs. And they chose. They chose as their pernicious greed demanded.
No longer was welfarism about helping the poor. It was about keeping the poor, poor – and, when Labour was in government, keeping the rich poor, too, if at all possible.
There have been few lights that shone in this darkness – such as Baroness Thatcher – and they were fiercely attacked. Every time a two-bit left-wing politician jokes about dancing on the grave of a lady who sacrificed her entire life in service to Britain for no discernible personal benefit, I hear Sam’s screams. Every time I hear the attacks on the government from the so-called advocates of ‘the disabled’ (because if you are disabled, you MUST be against the cuts!), I hear them in her voice. I see her face, distorted into a Munchian grimace, blaming me for killing her, then begging me in the next moment, then threatening me again.
The opiate of masses isn’t religion, it’s the welfare state. It has kept Britain’s population docile: docile enough to be governed by a Civil Service that lives in the days of the East India Company and successive governments that surpassed each other in only two things: greed and lack of leadership. It has kept Britain locked into a two-party system where eventually one cannot even tell the difference between who is governing – and eventually, one gives up giving a damn about it. Now Britain is sleepwalking into another delusion: behind the French bellwether, the nation of addicts will soon demand we burn the non-addicted to feed their addiction.
The problem is, ‘the rich’ – as in, ‘tax the rich!’, a placard that generously omits who the rich actually are – aren’t a renewable resource. Fine, you can tax the rich. It is quite fortuitous and reveals a great deal of insight by Francois Hollande to limit the French 75% rate to two years, because after two years, nobody will pay it: those who want to pay it won’t have anything to pay it out of, and those who don’t want to pay it will have long hidden it in a shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands owned by a Panamanian company owned by a Jersey trust – you get the idea.
The wild attempts to rob the rich (because a 75% tax rate is, let’s be fair, not taxation but robbery) reveal how fundamentally misunderstood they are. Robbing the rich makes sense – if, and only if, they are rich because of some magical accident. Except that is not the case – the overwhelming majority of wealthy people I have come across, both in work and private life, are hard-working and intelligent people. You can’t take 75% of their work ethic and redistribute it – nor would such an idea necessarily meet with the approval of the proposed recipients. In today’s information-driven world, the means of production are minds – and you can’t nationalise minds. You can rob the fruits, but you cannot touch the tree.
What Britain needs is not more of the soporific drug of welfare money. What it needs is a detox, and it only works quickly. And I’m not going to lie – I’ve seen people detox from drugs, and it’s not pretty. It will hurt. I remember the addicts’ screams as their body slowly broke down the drugs and opened the door perhaps to a new life. It was a painful birth of perhaps their new self. Some, of course, relapsed the moment they made bail or left prison. Others, like Sam, managed to sort their lives out. There is hope for addicts – even if the addict is an entire nation.
But it won’t be without pain.
*(name changed to protect the not quite innocent)