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Our politicians exaggerate the value of hard work and have become incapable of seeing the value of leisure. The last Prime Minister exemplified this failing: Gordon Brown announced at the start of the 2010 general election campaign that he was going “to fight on behalf of hard-working families”.

Brown as he spoke these words was surrounded by a collection of exhausted and dejected colleagues, whom he led to Labour’s second worst defeat since 1918.

But this dismal result has not prevented the Conservatives, or some of them, from being every bit as keen as Brown to proclaim themselves on the side of hard-working families.

This happens with particular frequency when they are talking about welfare reform, and it makes them sound horrible. As Janan Ganesh observed in Tuesday’s Financial Times, it has “only entrenched the Tories’ reputation as sour, overprivileged misanthropes”.

In last Thursday’s Daily Telegraph, Fraser Nelson argued that the present Prime Minister faces a choice:

“It is a question of language, priorities, and what sort of party Cameron wants people to vote for next year. Is it one that takes sadistic pleasure in making life tougher for those on benefits? Or a party that sees them as victims of a broken system, and wants to help them from dependence into independence? As Conservative modernisers point out, even people who agree with Tory policies tend to question Tory motives. Given that welfare reform will be at least a 10-year mission, there is a case for the whole Government making clear what these motives are. Tories tend to dislike moral missions – but there is a clear need for one here.”

Listeners detect, in expressions like “hard-working families”, an intolerable bogusness. The speaker claims to be saying something highly moral, namely that only those who work hard deserve to be helped.

But the manipulative motive for taking this pious line is all too clear. The speaker is making a transparent bid for the support of respectable members of the working class who feel outraged by the fecklessness of benefits claimants. Nelson quoted the passage in which George Osborne, addressing the Conservative Party Conference in 2012, invites people to imagine the anger of “the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour, sleeping off a life on benefits”.

As Peter Franklin observed on Monday for ConservativeHome, “the news that a posh Tory wants to squeeze the underclass will come as no surprise to anyone”, and is unlikely to make people change their minds about the Tory party. It is quite possible to agree with a sentiment, but to find it expressed in such an off-putting way that one withholds one’s support from the person who is saying it.

But this kind of rhetoric is open to a wider objection than that it may bring no political advantage. It betrays a terrible poverty of mind: a narrow, puritanical conception of life, and a coercive and intolerant urge to make other people conform to that conception: a sort of unrecognised totalitarianism.

In place of the generous impulse to help people get out of poverty and lead full lives, one finds the desire to order them around and make them do as they are told. Instead of liberty, one finds servitude. In the presentation of the welfare reforms, there is none of the sense conveyed in their different ways by both Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher of enlarging people’s freedom: something Macmillan dramatised by getting an astonishing number of houses built (see the illustration at the top of this article) and Thatcher by enabling council tenants to buy their own houses.

What is a full life? The workaholic does not ask that question. He, or more rarely she, evades it by doing nothing but work. Questions about the value of that work are too difficult. In the words of Benjamin Jowett, the great Master of Balliol, “Men get lazy, and substitute quantity of work for quality.”

The propensity to work with indiscriminate zeal can be found in many walks of life, including law, journalism, the City and politics. In order to get to the top, or stay there, people drive themselves to extreme feats of endurance and self-denial. As Ed West observed in a recent Spectator blog entitled Someone rid us of the awful slogan: ‘hard-working families’:

“People often snipe at the Bullingdon clique as being a sort of lazy, privileged elite from the 18th century, but they’re in fact part of a very hard-working, privileged elite, and that extreme work ethic filters down.”

For the workaholic, nothing matters but work. But for most people, other things do matter. They want time to go for a drink, or watch football, or see a beloved friend, or plant something in the garden, or read a book, or play a game, or cook a meal, or any of the myriad pleasures of life. A family may find itself happier if it is not hard-working, so its members have time for each other and for other pursuits which bring no financial reward.

To the workaholic, the opposite of work is idleness. But the opposite of work is actually leisure. After touching on the horrors of workaholism in an earlier piece for ConHome, I was urged by Robin Harris, who worked closely for Margaret Thatcher, and whose most recent book, Not For Turning, is a biography of her, to read Leisure: The Basis of Culture by the German theologian Josef Pieper.

In this short book, first published in 1947, Pieper rejects the “totalitarian claims” of “the modern ideal of work” with its relentless utilitarianism. He expounds instead a liberating idea of leisure, descended from Aristotle and able to “save men from becoming officials and functionaries and ‘workers’ to the exclusion of all else”.

Aristotle said “we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace”. Leisure is not sloth. At its core lies celebration, which means our “affirmation of the universe”, which in turn, Pieper says, means “praise of the Creator of this very world”.

No wonder our politicians do not try to speak of these holy mysteries. But there is no need for them to go to the opposite extreme, and behave as if only unremitting toil is of any value.

Cameron, it appears to me, is an energetic man who has been brought up to understand the value of leisure, and does not wish to drive himself mad by indulging in persistent overwork. But he avoids admitting this, for fear of being dismissed as a languid individual who is just floating along on the surface of events.

And that is indeed how Cameron would be dismissed by commentators who are as industrious as he is, and who yearn to condemn him as some sort of latter-day P.G.Wodehouse figure, only not so harmless.

So our rulers promote a rhetoric in which only hard work is accorded respect, and in which this virtue is to be imposed on the poor as well as embraced by the rich. But most of us see life in richer and more subtle terms than that, which is one reason why we find our politicians impossible to respect.

64 comments for: The Tories need a generous not a coercive rhetoric about the poor

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