ONE of the most telling - and brilliant - passages in Muriel Spark's evergreen novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is that in which the charismatic but delusional schoolmistress escorts her impressionable charges on a jaunt through Edinburgh's Grassmarket.
It is the beginning of the 1930s and, for at least one of Miss Brodie's girls, it is her first experience of a foreign country, with "its new smells and shapes and its new poor". Later, she and her chums come across a queue of men, shabbily besuited and smoking fags. "They are the Idle," points out another of the girls.
"In England," explains Ms Brodie, "they are called the Unemployed. They are waiting to get their dole from the labour bureau...Sometimes they go and spend their dole on drink before they go home, and their children starve." In Italy, she adds, "the unemployment problem has been solved".
Though the unemployed no longer have to queue for handouts they remain today as prone to stereotyping as they were in that grotty decade before the advent of the Second World War. Likewise, curing unemployment has been a bugbear of governments for much of the past century. What is obvious is that no-one has a magic wand. Unlike debt, joblessness cannot just be waved away.
That unemployment is a scourge on society, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, is barely noteworthy. In the environs of Glasgow, it is believed that one in three households does not have an adult with experience of the workplace. That, certainly, ought to be a statistic to concentrate minds wonderfully.
Youth unemployment is particularly prevalent, with even highly qualified young people finding it impossible to get work. In his new novel, The Deaths, Mark Lawson describes how a graduate with a good degree has only been able to find a job delivering expensive capsules of coffee to rich customers. And he is one of the lucky ones. Others have no option but to go on the contemporary equivalent of the dole.
Against this backdrop Chancellor George Osborne has announced the latest scheme to tackle unemployment. Called Help to Work, it is targeted at those who have been jobless for more than two years. After that period, and in order to keep their Jobseekers' Allowance, they will be given three options: work in the community, including clearing up litter; daily visits to a job centre; or compulsory training to better their chances in the job market.
As usual when such initiatives are launched there is no shortage of complainants, ranging from those who regard such schemes as iniquitous and an affront to human dignity to sceptics who insist that they cannot possibly be efficacious. Not without cause, they suspect Mr Osborne of playing to a gallery of capitalist neo-cons who are never happier than when kicking someone when he or she is down. "We are saying there is no option of doing nothing for your benefits," he told his fellow Tories in Manchester, "no something-for-nothing any more."
Let's for a moment, however, believe that the Chancellor is sincere and that by giving people the chance to work we will see if they are willing to embrace it. I hope they will. I dare say that for many unemployed people it is a desperate state of affairs. For many others, however, there is no doubt that work, whatever shape or form it takes, is something they are desperately seeking to avoid.
Of course this is hard to prove or to compute. Ask someone whether he would take a job if given one and he is more likely to say yes than no. But if we're honest we all know people who don't want ever to work or have contrived to make themselves unemployable, either through lack of education or by the way they dress, look or behave.
Recently, a young teller in the bank nodded to someone he'd been at school with who'd never worked since he left. What does he want to do? I asked. "Nothing," shrugged the teller. In a similar vein, I wrote to my local council, complaining Meldrewishly about the unsightliness of litter. In response, an official said that holidaying staff and "unfilled vacancies" were to blame. When I asked what the problem was in finding people qualified to pick up litter the correspondence ended. Over to you, Mr Osborne.
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