Today's case of bad history and bad government is the 'reform' of Disability Living Allowance.
You'll have seen on the news that the Government has already been retreating on this one, running away from extending the initial qualifying period from three months to six, and backtracking from taking it away from people in residential care. The political toxicity of benefits reform is engraved on the hearts of all Conservatives, after the Major government tried it and found wheelchair-bound protestors handcuffing themselves to railings outside Number 10. Now they're back in the same position. Plus ca change.
That's not to say, of course, that the legislation should remain set in stone forever. Numbers have indeed risen very sharply, and it's hard to argue with at least some regular checks to make sure that people are still receiving the right benefit.
But consider the history. DLA has its roots in the 1970s, when campaigners began to argue that disabled people had the right to move around - and be helped to do so. That they had the right to live as good and as mobile a life as anybody else. And that the 'patchwork quilt' of (theoretically unavailable but often quietly paid for) local authority and National Assistance help with scooters, taxi rides and the like was just inequitable, inefficient and unfair. Mobility and Attendance Allowances were brought in - the genesis of today's DLA.
The more recent story behind the rise in numbers claiming the benefit is even more enlightening. Think that a big increase in claimants means more people are coming in from other benefits? Defrauding the system? Taking advantage? Well, first consider the criteria for claiming the benefit - at its higher rate, 'people who are virtually unable to walk'. Hmm, well they wouldn't be near the top of my own cuts list in any time of austerity, but there you are. More seriously, three hard and concrete reasons are given for the rise by people who actually know about and research this question:
(a) the rising numbers of people in their 50s and 60s ('demographic bulge') who are getting more infirm and increasing the strain on DLA;Sound more convincing than blaming 'scroungers'? You betcha.
(b) more diagnosis of children with learning difficulties who can claim the Allowance; and...
(c) the general lower tolerance for illness and non-mobility in our society which means that the disabled are insisting on standing up for their rights and claiming.
Then there's the question of objective need. There is some evidence of a rise in actual disability among the population of working age during the 1990s, an effect we can now see feeding through into the numbers of people claiming DLA. As you can see from this academic text on the subject, even at the time of DLA's introduction, there were estimated to be 6.5m disabled people in the population. Three million people claiming it does not, a priori, appear therefore to be a very high number.
You know what I think? Ignore the more lurid headlines on the subject. Both the history and the administration of DLA show that we're going to need more of it in the future - not less.