A century ago, the great German sociologist Max Weber first postulated the link between "the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism". For Protestants in general and the Anglo-American Puritans in particular, work was ordained by God to be life's raison d'être. St Paul told the Thessalonians: "If any would not work, neither should he eat." (Evidently Greeks were taking early retirement even then.) This applied, says Weber, "to everybody and unconditionally". Reluctance to work was "a symptom of the absence of divine grace". Medieval theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas interpreted St Paul to apply only to those who needed to work to support their families. The Puritans demanded "rational professionalism". Only "internalised asceticism" could create the modern bourgeoisie, with its "capitalist spirit" and "Protestant work ethic". Even the Royal Family has (literally) embraced these values in the person of Kate Middleton.
As a nation, we may care little for St Paul and even less for Weber, but the work ethic, Protestant or otherwise, looms large in the present political debate. Iain Duncan Smith has proposed the greatest reform of the welfare state since the 1940s. At that time, Sir William Beveridge drew on the Puritan tradition of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, conjuring up "five giants on the road to reconstruction": Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The Coalition has undertaken the task of slaying all five giants. But it is the last — Idleness — that Duncan Smith wants to conquer. His Universal Benefit restores Beveridge's insurance principle by insisting that welfare must be funded, that nobody should be penalised for getting a job and that "full employment in a free society" is still a worthy aspiration.
What of the curious incident of the Labour Party? But surely, you may say, it has done nothing to oppose welfare reform so far. That was the curious incident. Duncan Smith is winning the argument hands down: so much so that almost the only serious opposition so far has come from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Asked by the BBC last month about the proposal to oblige the long-term unemployed to do voluntary work to prepare them to return to paid employment, he said that he did not think it was fair. "People who are struggling to find work...are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure's on in that way," he explained. "People are often in this starting place, not because they're wicked or stupid or lazy, but because circumstances have been against them."