06 January 2011

The changing face of paternalism

In my piece about Christmas Benefits, a lady receiving benefits is quoted as saying that if the government gives her money she has a right to spend it as she pleases and should not be criticised for doing so. Evidently there is sufficiently general sympathy with this view of the matter for many people like herself to continue receiving similar forms of support with no detailed enquiry into the use that is made of them. (I am not suggesting detailed enquiries should be being made. Apart from anything else, it would be prohibitively expensive. In principle I agree that if the state gives an individual enough taxpayers’ money for him or her to save out of, that is the individual’s business. The problem is that it is not realistic to go on paying benefits on this scale.)

The attitudes which I have encountered throughout my life, and certainly from the time when I was prevented from taking the School Certificate exam at 13, have been diametrically opposed to the permissiveness and generosity which is shown to people in the position of the Christmas Benefits lady.

When I was 21, thrown out at the end of the ruined education with no usable qualification, I found that I could get a research grant from Trinity College, Cambridge to do a postgraduate degree, which I hoped would get me back on to an academic career track. Rosalind Heywood at the Society for Psychical Research, presumably not yet in focus on my unacceptable outlook, and thinking of me as of any other impoverished young student, suggested at that early stage that I should apply to the Parapsychology Foundation in New York for supplementary funding, to which she would evidently give her influential support. I remember discussing with W H Salter and Sir George Joy in the office how much I should apply for, and Salter said in a throwaway manner, ‘Americans always give enormous grants. See what you think you really need and apply for twice as much.’

In fact I saved money throughout the period of my postgraduate degree at Oxford (in spite of taking more taxis than other people would have done) by making the most economical arrangements possible, and continuing with the policy which I was already applying to my paltry SPR salary of regarding only half of my income as available for spending.

At various stages during my postgraduate studies, Rosalind became suspicious and tried to force me to give an exhaustive account of how every penny was disposed of. I was not very good at making up an acceptable cover story. I am sure that many students spent a lot more than I did, but I was not in focus on their most expensive activities, and most of what I spent the money on was unacceptable.

Eventually, at the end of the Trinity College grant, it became necessary to obtain funding for the next stage. I did not conceal from my chief supporters, Sir George and Salter, that I had saved a couple of thousand pounds. Both of them, at different times, appeared shocked at my saving money, but the income from my capital was clearly trivial, so Salter, overcoming his horror and dismay, filled in ‘negligible private income’ on application forms for funding.

However, no funding at all could be obtained from any source, and all prospective support broke down. So I was forced to finance myself and any associates without any outside funding, and without being eligible for ‘income support’ since, as I have explained before, I could not apply for ‘social security’ as I was not considered qualified for any job that I could have accepted.

The rigorous withholding of support continued for years, in fact until the present day, and I suppose the idea was that I would be forced to run down my small capital until even that tiny piece of independence was destroyed.

At the end of the seven-year covenant from Cecil King, Lady Hardy (wife of Sir Alister Hardy and sister of the Bursar of Somerville) asked a friend of mine what we were going to do when the King money ended. Would we be leaving the house in the Banbury Road? ‘Well, no,’ my friend said. ‘We will be continuing to live there as before.’ And, my friend said, Lady Hardy’s face dropped unmistakeably, which implies that Lady Hardy was anticipating as a pleasurable experience my being thrown out on the streets without a salary or a roof over my head. Being deprived of this anticipated pleasure was enough of a disappointment for this to show visibly in her expression.

One may contrast this situation with Miss Bookey’s apparent pleasure and enjoyment of my joyful happiness on having the opportunity to get ahead in the Lower Fifth.

At the end of the King money, one might have expected senior academics, enquiring into the position of much younger people attempting to do progressive research in a situation of great difficulty, to be doing so in order to examine ways and means of replacing at least some parts of the vanishing support, so that the aspiring and hard-working young people could carry on.

In fact everyone was always obviously pleased at any misfortune that befell us, and obviously displeased at any disaster we managed to avert.

Miss Bookey, and the Reverend Mother before I was prevented from taking the School Certificate exam, clearly represented an attitude that had only been possible to an earlier generation, of being pleased to see an exceptional person deriving benefit from their ability, and being glad to have the opportunity to help them do so.

You could call both attitudes paternalism, in the sense of thinking you know what would be ‘right’ for someone. In one case you think it is right to help them, in the other that it is right to ruin them.