The welfare debate and the age of the trollemic

I decided to invent a new word yesterday:

It’s the welfare debate that’s prompted it, but it could be any other topic on a given week.

daily mail philpott front pageYesterday saw the Daily Mail publish a typically sensationalist front page blaming the welfare state for the tragedy of six children being killed by their parents. On Monday the Mirror shouted ‘Shameful’, with a cartoon showing Thatcher, Cameron, Osorne and Clegg banging in the final nail of a coffin marked ‘RIP Welfare’.

Each is exaggerating to make their own point. Both are gross over-statements: trollemics. The Mail’s is the more lurid, for sure: exploiting the deaths of six children to make a barely-related political statement is cheap. The welfare state was no more to blame for their deaths than capitalism would be to blame if they’d done it to claim on insurance. The motive was greed; the result a tragedy.

The Mirror’s front page is less tawdry — politicians are fair game and the ‘bedroom tax’ among other reforms is, I’ve argued before, a mistake — but its claim that the Coalition has “destroyed” the welfare state is plainly wrong.

It’s not just newspaper front pages, though. As the media expands, so columnists are shouting louder to try and get heard: outrage is their currency, whether it’s James Delingpole, Julie Burchill, Richard Littlejohn or Polly Toynbee. Here’s Charlie Brooker on the subject:

Twitter and Facebook are seemingly full of people actively seeking out statements to be offended by, parsing every word as it scrolls upscreen, panning for turds. And the moment they find one, they launch into a performance of such deranged, self-assured haughtiness, the Daily Mail seems hopelessly amateur by comparison. … This is every day on Twitter, for ever. 9am: James Delingpole says trees are lesbians so we should saw their flat ugly tits off and fire them at Muslims using a petrol-powered catapult. 9.03am: An enraged section of Twitter spends nine hours ceaselessly promoting James Delingpole, to the delight of James Delingpole. 6pm: James Delingpole triumphantly closes his laptop and strolls away whistling, clicking his heels as a cartoon vignette closes around him.

complicated sloganTrollemic suits those who like their politics in black and white, who want to argue that state action is always right/wrong, that those who claim benefits are scroungers/angels. Their screech seeks to drown out all reason to create a simplistic pure/evil binary out of every news story.

If you like your politics as a T-shirt slogan can I at least suggest you try out Ben Goldacre’s for size: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Did you invent the word “trollemic”? It’s good.

  • Bill le Breton 4th Apr '13 - 10:06am

    Careless Talk Costs Lives – Stephen I followed your link to Goldacre’s site and saw a baby bib for sale with the slogan; “MMR is safe: tell your friends”

    News came this morning of a worrying spike in cases of measles in Swansea where a few years ago, a local rag had run an anti-MMR jab campaign.

    A spokesperson for the newspaper said, “Our news room has changed since then, so it is not appropriate for it to comment.”

    With the present hysteria over ‘feckless neighbours’ (inflamed by our own Danny, Liberal, Alexander) we should all remember the attack on the Paulsgrove ‘paediatrician’ whose home was attacked when the community thought they knew he was a paedophile.

  • Paul in Twickenham 4th Apr '13 - 10:24am

    Today’s Telegraph has the first of a new regular column by Kelvin Mackenzie. I note that the “best rated” reader comment on his article (which I cannot read as it is now behind a paywall) is “This is the day The Daily Telegraph became a gutter press tabloid”.

    It’s the zeitgeist of the new economic reality, isn’t it? Everyone is angry because their income is stagnating or falling and someone must be to blame.

    The press is reflecting a barely suppressed seething anger with the thinginess of it all.

  • Helen Dudden 4th Apr '13 - 10:31am

    It was not the welfare state that killed those children, it was human beings. There are the ones to serve the prison sentence for a terrible crime.

    It is gutter press at it’s worst.

  • The Coalition may not have destroyed the Welfare State but they have started the destruction. We are truly going back to Victorian times when there was extreme violence due to poverty, deprivation, despair and there were a lot more Philpots. Before I am attacked as being a Labour troll, I have no doubt they would be exactly the same, they brought in the WCA. Welfare has kept us from violence. As people have less money and the stress deepens, expect more. We need an end to Career Politics. MPs are moaning about their lunch and dinner allowances while children go hungry. We have Save the Children advertising on TV because of deprivation in the UK while they stuff themselves. Problem is that when we raise these issues we are called trolls as well. So, when is a troll good or bad? It depends on what you want to hear.

  • I’m offended on behalf of trolls everywhere. These mythical creatures were around long before the internet and as far as I Ican tell did little more than eat a few billy goats gruff in a fable or two.
    Stop this blatant trollist bigotory. I propose that internet trolls be renamed trawls because it fits what they do better.

  • Bob Rospole 4th Apr '13 - 12:11pm

    I surely can’t be the only one to notice the cognatitive dissonace (smell of bullsh*t) here.

    Liberal Democrats are fully involved with the scandalous demonisation of people in need of welfare, just as much as their Tory masters, and the small newspapers.

    I hope this disgusting front page makes everyone stand back and think about what they are doing.

  • Anne supplies an example:

    We are truly going back to Victorian times when there was extreme violence due to poverty, deprivation, despair and there were a lot more Philpots.

    I am quite surprised that she thinks that child benefit was so generous in the Victorian era, but there again, perhaps I shouldn’t be.

  • Tony Dawson 4th Apr '13 - 2:34pm

    @Glenn :

    “I propose that internet trolls be renamed trawls because it fits what they do better.”

    ‘trolling’ is yankee for ‘trawling’. And USAspeak rules the world 🙁

  • George Osbornes call for a debate about the welfare state could do worse than start with a comparison of the economic stability of the Scandanavian countries compared with that of the US and the UK
    Why Scandinavia can teach us a thing or two about surviving a recession.

    The Norwegian Finance Minister says “We notice more interest around the Nordic model because we manage to combine productivity, growth and welfare,. A large public sector is a buffer against the turmoil of the markets.”

  • Ray Cobbett 4th Apr '13 - 4:03pm

    If you think the Mail’s effort was tawdry compared with the Lynton Crosby inspired insult from Osborne today it’s nothing . How can we remain in the same room as a man like Osborne?

  • Graham Evans 4th Apr '13 - 4:23pm

    While it is often popular to draw on models from other countries, comparisons are often dangerous. There have been quite a few studies of whether the Scandinavian social welfare model could be imported into this country, and the generally conclusion is that the differences in population, history, social attitudes, attitudes to state direction, etc., mean that a transformation would be nigh on impossible. (Incidentally, of course the political right looks to Sweden as an example of how the “free schools” and profit motive might be introduced into the British educational system, but few on the left seem to want to follow this example.) Similarly, we are often told to look to Germany as a model of how to run an economy, but closer analysis suggests that the economic, social and educational structures of the two countries are fundamentally different. Both countries have their strengths but for instance the British higher educational system is actually much better geared towards scientific and IT innovation than is the German system. This is not to say that we cannot learn from the examples of other countries, but those, whether or the right or the left, who suggest that Britain would be better off if we were more like the Scandinavian countries – isn’t Iceland actually a Nordic country, and didn’t Sweden have a major bank collapse long before the UK – or more like the USA, or more like Japan, or more like India, or more like the Chinese, or more like the Asian tigers, are simply reflecting their own ideological attitudes to how society should be structured.

  • Graham,

    with all due respect, it should be patently obvious that international comparisons of what works and what does not are part and parcel of any credible ‘Evidence-based Policy development’.

    The Scandavian and Nordic countries experience have wholly debunked the myth bandied about by Neo-Liberal ideologues that a large public sector is of itself some kind of restraint or impediment to productivity growth or improvement in living standards.

    The Financial Times economic commentator, Martin Wolf, commented on this in his blog last year Taxation, productivity and prosperity addressing two widely held, but mistaken, views. The first is that lower taxes are the principal route to better economic performance. The second is that the financial crisis is a crisis of western welfare states.

    The conclusion he drew was that relative tax burden/level of welfare spend tells one nothing about a country’s economic performance. It is far more a reflection of different social preferences about the role of the state. What matters far more are culture, quality of institutions, including law, levels of education, quality of businesses, openness to trade, strength of competition and so forth.

    His final conclusion was that the focus on the tax burden is misguided. Alternatively, the economic arguments are a cover for (perfectly understandable) self-interest.

  • Helen Dudden 4th Apr '13 - 5:22pm

    Of course, the welfare system is in meltdown, but extreme behavior is never an excuse for any type of lawbreaking.

    You are probably correct about the need to rethink the role of an MP, would any other person get the same perks? Maybe bankers, but then that should have been resolved many years ago.

    I suggest that MP’s look to themselves, and decide where they should stand on the subject of how they treat others. Many of those in government are millionaires, do they need to take they system for what they can?

    Part timers in politics could work, if MP’s worked together, shared the workload.

    I suggest that MP’s stop thinking about expenses and concentrate on what is a highly paid employment, that should only last for a limited time.

  • Graham Evans 4th Apr '13 - 5:39pm

    While economists, politicians, sociologists, pedogogs, etc., like to ascribe the word “science” to their activities, unlike a true science such as chemistry and physics, they are seldom able to set up a proper experiment to prove or disprove what in reality are no more than hypotheses, and certainly not theories. The variables are just too great, particularly in a democratic society. Usually, all they can hope to do is to draw some inferences from what they observe. Consequently the idea that from “international comparisons” you can determine “what works and what does not” is patently nonsense.

    I sometimes enjoy reading Martin Wolf but all his blog does is to debunk the view that lower taxes are an automatic route to better economic performance or that the financial crisis derives solely from a crisis of western welfare states. He is simply denying cause and effect. There are plenty of examples where economic success is accompanied by low taxes and a weak welfare system but this does not prove that low taxes and weak welfare system lead to economic success. Similarly there are plenty of examples where high taxes and a strong welfare state are accompanied by poor economic performance, but by the same token this does not proof that there is a cause and effect. Martin Wolf may be right in suggesting that the focus on the tax burden in the UK is misguided, but in practice it is impossible to prove this one way or the other. Consequently, the approach anyone takes on issues such as tax and welfare is guided essentially by their view of human nature and what constitutes a perfect society. On these issues there never has been, and never can be, a consensus in the large and diverse country such as the UK.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 4th Apr '13 - 6:03pm

    Can we add George Osborne to the list of “Trollemicists”? His comments today are deeply offensive to benefit claimants. This is one horrible crime, committed by a thoroughly nasty person.

  • David Allen 4th Apr '13 - 6:40pm

    Presumably the next time a black man is convicted for a murder, Osborne will claim that a debate is needed about the lifestyles of black people in this country?

  • Graham,

    “On these issues there never has been, and never can be, a consensus in the large and diverse country such as the UK.”

    I would say that there was indeed a cross-party post-war consensus that maintained the broad support of the general population from the end of World War II to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. An electorate that had experienced first-hand the deprivation of the inter-war years and the shared sacrifices of wartime Britain.

    That consensus (sometimes referred to as Butskellism) was founded on a comprehenisve welfare state as developed by William Beveridge and management of the economy on the basis of full employment, that Beveridge defined as a state where the numbers of unemployed were broadly equal to the number of job vacancies in the economy.

    The economic programs that began with the monetary theory/money supply experiments of the early 1980’s have seen a vast growth in the number of people of working age reliant on benefits even during periods of economic boom, a breakdown in the post-war consensus and a decimation of the industrial capacity of the UK.

    The increased costs associated with maintaining high numbers of unemployed/inactive workers were initially met by the revenues from North Sea Oil that came on stream in the early eighties; and more recently by the winfall receipts of tax revenues from the pre-crisis housing boom and asociated growth in financial services.

    As we grapple with our current economic situation, without the benefit of the windfall of North Sea Oil or the temporary sustenance of a credit bubble will we return to a new form of societal post-war consensus or is it to be everyman for himself?

  • Ruth Bright 4th Apr '13 - 8:27pm

    “Trollemic” – the perfect word to sum up the political moment. Just as “omnishambles” was perfect last year.

  • Oh look, there’s something better over there.

  • Simon Bamonte 5th Apr '13 - 5:07am

    @Oranjepan: “Oh look, there’s something better over there.”

    Believe it or not, there are companies who are happy to receive slightly smaller profits in return for hiring locally and remaining “human”. There are companies who are happy to pay current UK tax rates, knowing their success rests on an educated workforce and a proper infrastructure. There are those of us who are not entirely cynical and still think that every human is not only attracted to the bottom dollar, those who see “something better”, as you describe it, and rationally decide, after looking at “better” from all angles that it isn’t “better” after all. Plenty of British companies have been happy to take advantage of an educated workforce and a decent infrastructure only to get too big for their boots, move operations overseas and see quality and customer loyalty drop. Too many companies look only at short-term profits and fleecing the customers as much as possible. When so many large companies have customer satisfaction levels so low due to outsourcing and overworking of remaining staff, is it any wonder that smaller, British-based firms are doing decent business? Could your doctrine of “go where its cheapest” backfire on you and the companies who maximise profit over customer and worker satisfaction? Of course it can.

  • @ Martin The point is that there were no benefits in the Victorian Era! To blame Philpott’s actions on benefits is ridiculous. If you take away benefits then you will get back the violence of the Victorian Era. Please read posts correctly.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Apr ’13 – 5:24pm
    @ Anne -”The Coalition may not have destroyed the Welfare State but they have started the destruction. We are truly going back to Victorian times”

    Don’t be so dramatic, the only thing we are “going back to” is spending broadly what the public has historically been willing to be parted from, i.e. roughly 38% of GDP.

    Tell that to the people being pushed deeper into poverty. Tell that to the children going hungry.

  • As an example of the trollemic on a local level try the local Methodist minister for Hebden Bridge on their community website where he states :

    “This whole policy is transparently oppressive and evil. And anyone trying to support or defend it will certainly pay the price at the next election -and if my eschatology is right, will pay a much heavier penalty beyond that, but that’s another story. On both levels, I’d rather you and all the others who are screwing the poor repent now” (

    Saying we’ll pay at the next election is one thing, but to suggest that we’ll go to hell is bit over the top even for someone who makes religion their job.

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