Duke Maskell recalls Thatcher’s Human Resource, Personnel Function
If someone wants to sell you a fizzy drink he’s not fool enough to sell you sweet, carbonated water. He sells you an image of yourself drinking it. Images of ideal consumers in an ideal landscape, fingers forever hooking through the ring-pulls of tin cans. But it was a surprise, all the same—even in the 1990s, an age of enterprise and privatisation—to find the Department of Employment similarly engaged.
It hadn’t been there the last time I was unemployed, twenty odd years before. It hadn’t occurred to the DHSS then that unemployment was marketable. As I remembered it, you couldn’t get your benefit without aggravation. The surroundings were always seedy—plywood partitions and cracked lino—and you got nowhere without queuing. Being interviewed meant stepping between two sheets of plywood and broadcasting, to a roomful of strangers, things you’d rather keep to yourself. Staff and claimants were kept apart by a counter and a glass screen. Relations could be bloody. The staff called it “the front line”.
But by the early 1990s all that changed. We had become what—saving Brexit—we still are, UK PLC. We were open for business. And ‘business’ included not only prisons and education but benefits. We had the enterprise culture with a citizen’s charter. Getting unemployment benefit wasn’t any longer either “getting your rights” or “getting something for nothing”. It had a post-yuppie feel about it. It was like getting—or not getting—cash out of a cashcard machine. When you signed on for the first time, you didn’t go to something with the initials SS or the word Unemployment in the title. You went to a Job Centre. You had to feel good about what you were doing. You had to feel good about yourself. It had to feel like shopping.
There was no plywood, no cracked lino, no counters and protective screens, no queue. You had an appointment. As you opened the door, desks—in interactive communication mode—half-facing you, half-facing one another, reached out to draw you in. There were touch-tone telephones, VDU screens and computer modems but all set down as casually as potted plants; and there were easy chairs, wall-to-wall carpeting and pictures on the wall. Someone was making a statement. They were saying (some kitchens say the opposite): “Public space with a private feel”. This was no dole-queue. It was an ante-room to the International Airport Departure Lounge—a Bank or a Building Society waiting room at the very least. Someone was saying (perhaps they still are), “We can hear what you’re saying.”
The dole-office had become an enterprise, like British Rail, and caring. There were piles of letters calling us “Dear Customers” and thanking us “for helping us help you”; and there were glossy Jobseeker’s Charters saying how really keen the DoE was to improve the service it gave its clients. I wasn’t a claimant anymore. I wasn’t even a customer. I was a client. I had no money and they had nothing to sell (they were giving it away) but I was still their client. Well, O.K. And up on the wall, posters saying, “HELP US TO GET IT RIGHT . . . AND COMPLAIN if you think we have got it wrong.” They were inviting me to complain? The staff were even wore name-badges on their fronts so that I could complain about them behind their backs.
Did I want to enter the Gateway of Learning? Why not? On the far side—as one of the seriously unemployed—I would be rewarded with an information pack that included a real plastic credit-card-style card, good for 150 units’ worth of career counselling. I had to sign the card there and then lest someone less seriously unemployed tried to steal my units.
In twenty-odd years, time had evidently moved on.
Of course, there was one respect in which, like house prices in the 1990s, it seemed to have gone backwards. None of the jobs advertised paid more than about £2 15s an hour. But that only added to the wonder of it all.
I was late for my first interview but no one minded. A young woman greeted me and took me to a small, private room, where she sat protected from me by nothing but the desk she sat behind. It was like being interviewed by your building society for a home improvement loan. (This was, of course, before banks started begging to lend us their money.) In the politeness with which she treated me, there was even something of friendliness, of warmth. Not for me personally of course. For me as a member of a category, the client. It was a professional politeness but, even so, not put-on. I was being processed, but by a system whose empty spaces had been invaded by good will. It was bureaucracy with a real personal touch. Nothing of Kafka here. And if the system that employed her was a thorough fraud, well, she, with her own real considerateness, seemed for the moment to redeem it. A triumph of civilisation, and Englishness, unknown to Austrian Kafka (but not to Polish Conrad).
Still, twenty years earlier, being out-of-work (as it was called) had had saving things in common with being in work. You had to put up with—or could imagine you had to put up with—just enough aggravation to let you feel you earned what they gave you. Of course, you didn’t do a lot for it but then they didn’t give you a lot of it. And—though you had to go twice a week (not, as in 1990, once a fortnight)—when you didn’t have to go, your time and your thoughts were your own. That seedy organisation with the letters SS at the end left you free to think of work the way those in work did, not as virtuous but as paid. You worked for pay to live; and that was an end of it. Or else you went to the DHSS for your dole; and that was the end of that too.
But not anymore, not in the 1990s’ Jobshop that began trading under Mrs Thatcher and that continued under Tony Blair. Jobshop didn’t give you any aggravation but it wouldn’t leave you in peace either. From 9 to 5, 6 days a week, you weren’t to think any of the thoughts about work which people who are in work think. You’d got to think Jobless. You’d got to decline “jobshop”—jobless, jobcentre, jobclub, jobsearch, joblead, jobstart—then do it. Jobshop wanted you off the spot you were on and onto the spot that it was on.
So, while I was sitting on the chair I was on, being interviewed with perfect politeness in surroundings that combined home and office, I became aware that I was also on the wall, on posters, as the Ideal Client, asking, “HOW DO I GET ONTO THE JOBS BANDWAGON?” and being answered, “COME ON DOWN TO JOBCLUB.” What bandwagon was that? Was I claiming unemployment benefit or doing the hokey-cokey? Almost – at Jobclub, where you got free stamps and stationery and advice and help that was friendly. It was a place, “TO WORK TOGETHER AT GETTING A JOB . . . BECAUSE GETTING A JOB IS A JOB IN ITSELF.”
If you joined Jobclub, you could have your free stamps and friendly advice but not if you didn’t attend on time four half-days a week and meet your production targets. (Your work quota, your norm, was following up ten jobleads a session.) You didn’t have to join but if you did you’d got to “make a commitment”. It wasn’t like the Sally Bash, which would help you without being friendly and just because you needed it. It was like the Cubs, when they were the Cubs and you made the Wolf Cubs’ promise:
To do my best
To do my duty
To God and King
And to do a good turn every day.
You had to be sworn-in at Jobclub too:
To be on time
And attend every session of the Jobclub
Till a Job is found
To try out new approaches
To finding Jobs
And to follow up
An agreed number of Jobleads every day.
I didn’t join Jobclub but—having the right look about me—I did get sent The Executive Post (until it sent all its own staff on jobsearch too). It combined adverts for jobs (not many) with exhortation on behalf of jobs and enterprise. Under headlines like, “How To Preserve the In-employment Psychology When Unemployed”, it taught its readers how to combine what is disagreeable about being out of work with what is disagreeable about being in it, how to make a job of getting a job without making it pay:
Get out of bed, now you don’t have to and aren’t paid to, just as early as you did when you did and you were. Don’t read your morning post in bed with a cup of tea, as if you’re at home. Sort it at your desk, as if you’re at work. Keep your desk and your day, keep yourself as well organised as if they were working desk, day and self. (Make your desk look inviting to wake up to.) Don’t go to the library as if you are looking for something to read, go as if you are doing research or making a call. Exhaustively analyse your own strengths and weaknesses, and indefatigably consider how best to present the one and disguise the other. For, remember, you are your own product and your own sales rep too!
It was, and still is, a comfort to think of the journalist who gave these tips getting the chance to take them.
What was the duty of the out of work in Mrs Thatcher’s and Mr Tebbit’s Enterprise Culture? To play at being in it. Prostrate thyself before the sacred cow of useless labour. Work without pay, play without pleasure, hard. For hyperactivity was what the law now required of the unemployed. To qualify for unemployment benefit, it was no longer enough merely to be unemployed, to have paid your stamps and be “available”. No matter how many fewer jobs, how many times fewer jobs, there were than unemployed seeking them, you, like all the other unemployed, had to seek one “actively”, and record your efforts. For you might and would be interviewed, every 13 weeks, and had to provide evidence that you had been active. How many job advertisements read? How many answered? How many interviews? What, where, when and with what result? What letters—speculative and not? What telephone calls, meetings, follow-ups, contacts—formal and not? How many hours in the saddle since we last met? For the gang of virtue was in charge. The shopkeepers from Grantham and Billericay. They pedalled all hours themselves and wanted everyone else pedalling all hours too.
Except that—as the fat lady in Predator II said to the cop who was chasing the aliens—“I don’t think they give a shit.” For this was all play-acting. Who was going to police it? Out-of-work Stasi? Or the nice English women who staffed the Department of Employment? And if I did get a job, didn’t I get it instead of someone else?
I later learned that it was more like the Stasi than I thought. Under the newly introduced SBR (Strict Benefit Regime) rules, the smiling girl who came out from behind her desk to greet you—her valued client—had been given a “Disallowance Quota”, usually 50%, sometimes as high as 75%. For a while, to make it easier for her to fulfil her quota—her work norm—she was permitted to “deem” the client unavailable for work without having to prove it. If she did “deem” him, the onus then fell on him to prove otherwise. But, after a young Nottingham woman who had been “deemed” went home and killed herself, this instruction was withdrawn.
But a new one was introduced in its place: client comes in to look for a job; asks customer service about one on her Vacancies board; doesn’t like it, and says so. Whereupon, nice English girl bangs him up for 26 weeks’ loss of benefit for refusing a job without good cause.
Client can’t believe it. But he has to. It doesn’t matter that he came in looking for a job voluntarily, and volunteered the information she is using against him. What matters was that he had come to her attention.
It wasn’t a trap many would be unlucky enough to fall into. It wasn’t a trap many would care to spring, disallowance quota or no disallowance quota. So it wouldn’t save any money. It wouldn’t reduce unemployment or even the unemployment figures. Was it vindictive? I think it was another clip from that lager advert, in which we’d all been given parts as extras, unpaid.
But pretending to force the unemployed to make a job of getting jobs which didn’t exist was only half Jobshop’s own job. The other half was pretending to coax them to take jobs that paid less than unemployment did. Behind, the stick that didn’t beat. Ahead, the carrot you couldn’t eat. Both found in a collection of Thatcherite fables for the out-of-work called, How to be better off in work, a pill of information covered in soap opera: How Lin—whose teenage marriage didn’t work out but who has a steady relationship with Mike, 34, and a son, Mark, 3—could be better off in work—with her wages and the benefits she is entitled to—by £3.09 a week (less tax and expenses).
Lin and Mike and the rest of the crowd were decent, ordinary folk ready to work for incredibly small sums of money. They wanted to price themselves into work but were afraid they might be worse off if they did. They needed reassuring by their local cadre, their Claims Advisor, who proved to them that doing a week’s work for some derisorily small sum was being better off.
Every story had the same happy ending, the same moral. John Graham, for instance, (with a wife, Carol, and four children, ages 3, 8, 11 and 16 but no names) had it proved to him that with wages and benefits combined he’d be £25.26 a week better off than with benefits alone. John was delighted. You or I might not be. But he was. It didn’t matter to him that £20 of that £25.26 was a jobstart allowance, of which he’d lose £5 in tax straightaway and the rest six months later. It didn’t matter to him that, from the £5.26 that remained, he’d have to pay fares and all sorts of other expenses. He was so delighted to be back at work he didn’t notice he was worse off.
Actually, the genre wasn’t science fiction, it was socialist realism. Jerusalem was being built here by role models for the collective, by Stakhanovs and Li Fengs called Carol and John. Old Socialists didn’t die, they joined the Tory party. Then were subsequently called New Labour.
The atmosphere of mutual distrust in the old DHSS office of my first spell of unemployment might not have been nice but it was frank, it was natural. If you are getting money to live by without working, what’s more natural than to be suspected of not wanting to work? (Who wants to work?) What’s more natural than to get a bit of aggravation, from someone who is not only at work but has what must be the most aggravating job in the world, handing out money to people who aren’t? The old DHSS had its faults no doubt but it was something you could understand.
But Jobshop, the get-up that had taken its place, was like nothing on earth. It was one of those artificial, off-planet fantasy worlds they have in science fiction, Battersea Power Station turned theme park, The National Garden Festival, Mandelson’s Millennium Dome. It wasn’t a practical device for seeing that the unemployed don’t starve, or scrounge. It was a lager advert, commissioned by the Tories, kept running by New Labour. Compassion-with-a-hard-edge, toughness-with-a-soft-centre, the new cross-party consensus.
Burke, with whom the Tory party think that it has something to do, said the state wasn’t a partnership agreement in some low concern like the lager trade. He thought it should be looked on with reverence, as a partnership between the generations, in all science, in all art, in every virtue, and in all perfection. That took some believing, in the 1990s, with a state that was ready to dissolve into Europe and to surrender to limited liability companies its prerogatives at home, but, still, we ought to have been able to discern something to revere there, some shreds and tatters of faded majesty, Mr Hague and Mr Blair not-withstanding. Something to make sense of all that expensive ceremonial they were putting on at the Palace of Westminster. (Or was that, like the theatres, for the Japanese tourists too, another branch of the Great National Lager Advert?) But what dignity or decorum even, let alone majesty, can attach to a state department that mimics business and business manners? That gives itself an image and thinks it its business to give the citizen one too? That mistakes its responsibilities for a product and the citizen for a punter?
But it is trade that modern Tories revere. It is the state that now constitutes its idea of a low concern, as if the British state were a mere apparat like that of the former Soviet Union, not, of course, for transforming the relations between the classes but for maximising the efficiency of the system of production and distribution (or, for pretending to). Contemporary cross-party Toryism has been just as stupidly materialistic as the state socialism that it prides itself on having helped to bury. That’s why it can’t distinguish between privatising the car industry and privatising prisons. It has stood Burke on his head. But, who knows, perhaps Mrs May will put him the right way up again.
Mrs Thatcher made cynics. It left you feeling that there was no truth anywhere except in the isolated individual, that there was no institution or system or office that wasn’t a sham. Or to quote from the letters page of The Executive Post:
I have been unemployed for 7 months but have not got bored once. I spend 5 days a week on my jobs search, looking for a position in the human resource personnel function. To date I have replied to 57 advertisements, resulting in 6 interviews
sent out 231 speculative letters, resulting in 10 meetings, and my cv has been retained on file in 71 companies, all of which I will follow up
made contact with over 72 people starting with friends, people from my professional institute and past employers, which has resulted in 33 meetings . . . and . . . and . . .
DUKE MASKELL is joint author of The New Idea of a University (2002)
I remember being unemployed in the 80s then again in the 90s and you’ve hit the nail on the head. Best of luck.