BENEFITS – a novel
First published in 1979
Introduction to the 2012 ebooks edition
The UK economy is in meltdown. The dispossessed are rioting in the streets. A beleaguered government is casting around for ways to cut public spending and restore order.
Shall it persuade, or coerce, volunteers to take over social work and run schools?
Shall it force the unemployed to work for no pay?
Shall it abolish old age pensions, cut child benefits?
The welfare state seems doomed to be dismantled: the only questions are, how? And how soon? As traditional family values break down, radical activists with alternative lifestyles occupy public buildings.
Does this sound familiar? It does to me, as I re-read Benefits, a dystopian novel which I wrote in the mid-1970s and which now comes to you courtesy of electronic media which, had someone foreseen them at the time, would have caused me to say, “Don’t be silly, no-one will believe that.”
Benefits is fiction - the tale of a group of women and men living through momentous and sometimes sinister political changes - but it grew out of fact: in particular, an episode in UK national politics in 1976 which seemed to prove beyond doubt the truth of the feminist slogan “the personal is political”.
A Labour government was in power - one which, despite the ongoing financial difficulties brought on by the oil crisis, double-figure inflation, and the collapse of the pound, seemed friendly enough towards at least some of the demands of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. As well as an Equal Pay Act and a Sex Discrimination Act, both of which were in force by the end of 1975, they were promising to introduce child benefits: weekly cash payments for children’s main carers, usually mothers.
An element of domestic redistribution was involved: fathers were to pay more income tax in order that mothers could receive cash from the government. Child benefits would mean, as some commentators cosily depicted it, “a transfer of money from wallet to purse.”
This did not go down well with some male trade unionists. “On being informed of the reduction in take-home pay which the child benefit scheme would involve,” said a Cabinet minute of the time, leaked later to the magazine New Society1, “the TUC representatives reacted immediately and violently against its implementation, irrespective of the level of benefits which would accompany the reduction in take-home pay.”
To add fuel to the flame, the government was at the same time trying to persuade the unions to moderate their wage demands, and promising that in return it would not increase income tax. But the child benefit scheme would involve a tax increase - on breadwinning fathers. The two promises contradicted each other. One of them would have to be broken. In May 1976, the government announced that it was postponing the child benefit scheme indefinitely.
I was not a mother and had no plans to become one, so it didn’t affect me personally, but I was furious. So were a great many women, mothers and others, inside and outside the women’s liberation movement. The U-turn on child benefits was proof, if proof were needed, that gender was political and politics were gendered.
Many in parliament seemed to agree; the Guardian reported “widespread accusations of a Cabinet surrender to ‘trade union male chauvinism”2. Barbara Castle MP wrote in the New Statesman3: “The row over the government’s decision to postpone the introduction of the child benefit scheme is … the eruption of a growing anger at the stubborn masculine bias of British politics.” She predicted that women would not take this disappointment “lying down”.
We didn’t. Women of all political backgrounds, including trade unionists and Tories, communists and Christians, poverty pressure groups, mainstream women’s organisations, and, of course feminists, protested and petitioned. Eventually an untidy compromise was stitched up. Child benefits were reinstated, but at a lower rate than had previously been planned.
As a freelance writer and feminist activist, I observed - and sometimes participated in - the controversy from a damp basement near London’s Euston Station: the Women’s Research and Resources Centre (WRRC).
The WRRC, precursor of what is now the Feminist Library, was the perfect vantage point from which to watch the child benefit saga unfold.
This was not only because the dampness of the small single room kept it cooler than the rest of London during one of the longest, hottest summers on record, but also because of the way the entire debate rushed across my field of vision in the form of the literature and propaganda with which all sides kept the WRRC supplied.
Every post brought new contributions. Most feminists favoured child benefits for mothers, but did we really want them financed by money taken out of the pay packets of fathers?
Were child benefits not just another term for “wages for housework”, a demand which some women supported but others abhorred?
If women were paid for housework, would that make the government our boss?
The arguments flowed through my ink-stained fingers as I cranked out newsletters on our huge, noisy Gestetner duplicator. (Whatever happened to all those Gestetner duplicators when whispering digital printers took over?)
Perhaps it was the heat, but I was becoming dizzy. Wiping sweat from my brow and ink from my clothes, I realised that I could see both sides: yes, women who did domestic work at home should have money of their own. Yes, such a payment could turn malignant and become a weapon of social control. Obviously I was going to have to write a novel. Which I did. It is the one you are holding in your… whatever you are holding this in.
I was not new to fiction writing. I had made an early start, publishing two novels while still at university. But these had not earned enough money for the publishers to continue their interest in me, and I had been unceremoniously dropped.
It‘s hard to be a has-been in your early twenties, and for a number of years I had written no novels, though I joined a feminist short story writing group (with Sara Maitland, Valerie Miner, Michele Roberts and Michelene Wandor) which helped me rediscover my fiction-writing enthusiasm and voice. In late 1976, I started work on Benefits.
It was never intended as a manifesto. That’s what you write if you think you have all the answers, which I didn’t and don’t. I wrote Benefits to tell a story about how sexual politics impact on people.
The characters include Lynn, a journalist and mother of a disabled daughter; Derek, Lynn’s loyal but sometimes put-upon husband; Marsha, Lynn’s friend and lover; and Judy who, like Cassandra in Greek myth, is cursed always to speak the truth, but never to be believed.
Another important character in the novel is a building: a crumbling inner-city tower block, squatted and colonised by dissident women.
Benefits took two years to write, and was published in October 1979 by Virago. It featured in Time Out magazine’s alternative bestsellers, was translated into Swedish, Danish, Turkish and German, and published as a mass-market paperback in the USA. It was adapted into a stage play, and shortlisted for two literary awards (the Hawthornden and the Philip K Dick). The Virago edition remained in print for nearly 20 years, after which the rights were acquired by Five Leaves. A quotation from the book became the text of an alternative Christmas card: “The birth of a man who thinks he’s God isn‘t such a rare event.” I have heard rumours that there is a tea towel bearing this slogan, but I have been unable to verify this.
Reviews at the time of first publication were plentiful, in media ranging from The Guardian, The TLS and the Observer, to Spare Rib, Gay News and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review of Vista, California. Opinions varied from rapturous enthusiasm to bored distaste, from supercilious putdowns to cordial disagreement and reasoned debate.
Women’s Voice, the women’s paper from what is now the Socialist Workers’ Party, declared the book to be “feminist but not revolutionary”, mainly because of its “dangerous assumption that we are involved in a gender struggle and not a class struggle.”
“Spot on,” I thought. The Women’s Voice reviewer and I might not have seen eye-to-eye on the meanings of the words “feminist”, “revolutionary” and “dangerous”, but she had noticed what many other reviewers missed: that Benefits is a political novel in which all the serious struggles are about gender. Other issues (class, party, race, international affairs) are treated as peripheral, important only insofar as they reflect on how the sexes relate to each other.
This was not because I saw (or see) class, party, race or international affairs as side-issues. That would be absurd. Such matters, and the relationships between them, are too complex to arrange in simplistic pecking-orders of importance. But the male-dominated Left in the 70s was notorious for doing just that: loftily informing feminists that our concerns were no more than bourgeois deviations from the real struggle, and that the problem of sexism could be left to solve itself, after the revolution.
I thought, what if it were the other problems - the ones which these men did acknowledge as important - that were left to solve themselves? And I wrote Benefits in that spirit.
In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that the book was written before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, it was often seen, during the Thatcher years, as an attack on Thatcherite welfare policies. When the stage version of Benefits was produced at the Albany Empire in south London in 1980, Shelagh Stephenson played Isabel Travers (leader of the fictional anti-feminist Family Party) as a Thatcher clone - voice, handbag, the works. Stephenson brought the house down, and I enjoyed her performance as much as anyone, but I couldn’t help feeling that an important point had been missed.
I don’t worry about that any more. It is only right that a novel like this should take on a life of its own, and that the politics of the time when it was written should interact with those of the time when it is read. That is my answer to those readers who, encountering the book for the first time, notice all the things I got wrong in my predictions about the early 21st century. What, no internet, no mobile phones? No 9/11, no war against terror? No AIDS, no politicisation of religion? No Conservative Prime Minister advocating gay marriage?
Such developments were unforeseeable, at least by me. And yes, it’s embarrassing, or it would be if I had set out, in Benefits, to say, “Here’s what will happen,” instead of what I did set out to do, which was to put flesh on the bones of a debate by telling a story.
I did get some things right: government by coalition, wealthy trading blocs putting pressure on their less prosperous neighbours to change their social policies, and, long before Diana Spencer was a twinkle in a paparazzo’s eye, a charismatic princess who espouses the cause of the downtrodden.
But never would I have guessed that, more than 35 years on from the 1976 debacle, politicians would still be arguing about child benefit. At the time of writing (2012) the plan seems to be to means-test it, taking all or part of it away from families with one high earner, but paying it in full to families with two moderately-high earners. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s what you get when you start means-testing a universal benefit.
No doubt the debate will continue - in Parliament, on the streets, via social media and, for all I know, among gatherings of activists in damp basement rooms near mainline railway stations, from which the rhythmic thud and clunk of the Gestetner has long since faded away. (Where did those great hulking things go to die?)
1 17 June 1976
2 26 May 1976
3 4 June 1976