The Myth of “Broken Britain”: Welfare Reform and the Production of Ignorance



Abstract: This article takes on the challenge of what Robert Proctor calls “agnotology” (the study of ignorance) to analyse the current assault on the British welfare state by think tanks, policy elites and conservative politicians. The assault is traced back to the emergence of the Centre for Social Justice think tank, founded in 2004 by the current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith. I argue that a familiar litany of social pathologies (family breakdown, worklessness, antisocial behaviour, personal responsibility, out-of-wedlock childbirth, dependency) is repeatedly invoked by the architects of welfare reform to manufacture ignorance of alternative ways of addressing poverty and social injustice. Structural causes of poverty have been strategically ignored in favour of a single behavioural explanation—“Broken Britain”—where “family breakdown” has become the central problem to be tackled by the philanthropic fantasy of a “Big Society”. My agnotological approach critically explores the troubling relationship between (mis)information and state power.