Whatever happened to empathy?

Yesterday I tuned in to the Radio Scotland phone-in while driving to work. A modest observation from Scottish Prison Service chief executive Colin McConnell that prisoners treated with respect and decency are more likely to treat others that way, had brought out the "hang 'em and flog 'em" lobby in force. Callers were blithely calling prisons holiday camps, despite never having set foot in one of these sad, tense, grim places. After one lady explained that prisoners deserved nothing "because they aren't like us", I decided to change stations.

Big mistake. On Five Live, Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke was explaining why claimants should receive their benefits on a welfare cash card that could be used only to buy "essential items". "Ned things", like alcohol, cigarettes, gambling and Sky TV packages, which "hard-working families" have had to cut back on, would be taboo.

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The burly backbencher has no chance of getting his 10-minute rule bill on to the statute book, but it provides an interesting insight into the mindset of a large tranche of the Tory party. Mr Shelbrooke, who is clearly a stranger to hardship himself, trots out all the mythology we're used to hearing from Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith about benefits incentivising sloth, workless households living the high life and three generations of families that have never paid a penny of National Insurance. (For six months the Joseph Rowntree Foundation unsuccessfully scoured Glasgow for a single family in this category.) Of course, the system contains feckless, idle scroungers, but study after study demonstrate that they are a tiny minority.

No matter. This item brought out the rottweilers among the Five Live audience. At one point a man called Harvey was subjecting us all to a ferocious fortissimo shockjock-style rant about "useless filth spending my taxes" that left studio guest (The Spectator's James Delingpole) looking like a dangerous leftie. Mr Delingpole supported the cash card idea on the basis that public spending in the UK is now nearly £700bn a year. (He omitted to mention that Jobseeker's Allowance accounts for less than £5bn of this, compared with £74bn for state pensions, £56bn for education and £38bn for defence.)

Previous recessions have brought out the best in us. The recent death of the last Jarrow marcher reminds us of both the poverty suffered by the unemployed in the 1930s and the kindness shown to them on their 300-mile march to London. Naively, I imagined that as more and more of us experienced redundancy among friends and family, uncharitable public attitudes to such misfortune would change. Instead, we seem to be becoming ever more narrow-minded and hard-hearted. British Social Attitude surveys seem to bear this out, with support for policies that redistribute wealth and opportunity evaporating.

This is partly the fault of the left. Labour has been too timid about challenging the mythology of skivers and strivers. The online argument against Mr Shelbrooke's cash cards yesterday focused on practical objections: that the technologically incompetent DWP would leave families penniless; that drug addicts and alcoholics would barter or steal; that the system would exclude market stalls, charity shops, jumble sales and eBay, which claimants rely on for bargains.

In a world of celebrity culture and manipulative advertising, where we mould our thinking around our social identity, rejecting information that conflicts with our values, such arguments are simply batted away. Thus we lose our ability to understand and share the feelings of others. That's how we have been softened up for Mr Duncan Smith's speech on child poverty today that will argue that poverty is less about money than academic failure, welfare dependency, poor parenting and crime. When will we stop blaming poverty on the poor and stand up for policies that are kind and empathetic, rather than cruel and selfish?