George Osborne’s Future

I was surprised to hear George Osborne inviting his party and the nation to ‘choose the future’ yesterday.   It isn’t just because Trainspotting isn’t the most obvious text for a chancellor to refer to when making a major policy speech.  I’ve always thought of the chancellor as a ghastly apparition from a more distant England that was once ruled by men like Judge Jeffries, Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth.

Physically, his face is the very image of a certain kind of aristocratic cruelty and hauteur.  It’s just too easy to imagine him in the Georgian era in a powdered whig and two little spots of rouge, sending some child pickpocket to Australia for stealing a gentleman’s handkerchief say, or pausing to evict a starving family from his estates while galloping through the woodlands for a debauch at the Hellfire Club.

Cameron still pays lip service to the notion of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ even if his policies are about as compassionate as a rattlesnake’s bite.    Osborne doesn’t even bother.  More than any other Tory minister, he  seems to visibly relish his mindnumbingly vicious pronouncements.  His smile always seems on the brink of a sneer.  His eyes gleam with malice, and his lips seem to twist and curl themselves into disturbing shapes as he spits out his proposals, like a villain announcing his evil plans to the audience at a Christmas pantomime.

Except that the Tory delegates don’t boo and hiss.  They love him.  They sit back and let his cruelty wash over them, rolling over like pussycats as he strokes their bellies with another turn of the screw.  A two-year benefit freeze for 18-24 year olds?  Yesss.   Cuts in tax credits,child benefit and jobseekers allowance?  Oohh baby.   Punish the working poor and make the poor even poorer?  Stop it Georgie, stop I tell you, because it’s all so wrong but it feels so good.

No wonder he got a standing ovation. Osborne announced all this looking happier and more cheerful than he has done since he was photographed dancing to Spandau Ballet with Miss Whiplash back in the 80s.  And he might as well have delivered his speech wearing spike heels and a leotard, because ‘toughness’ appears to have had the same stimulatative and invigorating effect on him that his dominatrix once achieved through other means, even if  it doesn’t actually become him.

But then this kind of politics doesn’t really become anyone, because what Osborne is proposing is shameful and disgusting.  Remember, only a few weeks ago the newspapers were pontificating about the ‘ugly side’ of Scots nationalism, and ‘together’ became a feelgood word to match ‘kumbaya’ or maybe coca-cola?

Back then Cameron also talked about the shape of things to come.   In his keynote speech defending the Union he condemned the SNP for failing to offer an ‘optimistic vision’ of the future and he exhorted Scots to ‘Vote No – and you are voting for a bigger and broader and better future for Scotland and you are investing in the future for your children and grandchildren.’

Yesterday his Chancellor outlined what that ‘broader and better future’ actually means: the endless lie of ‘austerity’; the victimisation and persecution of the poor; the naked exploitation of the young, who are to be driven into a succession of low-paid temporary jobs or years of debt – and all this dressed up with a fake moral committment to ‘fairness.’

And there’s a lot more to come. ‘ Extremism Asbos’; plastic cards instead of cash for jobseekers; wars abroad and the normalisation and institutionalisation of inequality at home – that’s the future that Lord Snooty and His Pals are now offering to the nation, which so many Scots  rejected.

All this is bleak, grim, and very, very ugly indeed, and it’s not at all what Cameron was offering the Scots when he begged them to stay.   If he had, they almost certainly would not have ‘chosen the future.’

And I have to say that after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to choose it either.  If I look forward to anything that Toryland has to offer, it’s the prospect of the Tory party ripping itself to shreds as it tries to make itself even nastier than Ukip, until it becomes so utterly revolting that even the English cannot stomach it any longer, and finally remember that, like the Scots, they have the capacity to build a different kind of future that will wipe the smirk of George Osborne’s pampered face.

 

 

 

 

Home is where the Hatred is

Yesterday’s Sunday Mirror has the awful story of Linda Wooton, the 49-year-old woman who died in hospital nine days after an Atos work assessment test declared her ‘fit for work.’   Mrs Wooton’s health had been poor for three decades, as a result of complications from a heart and lung transplant.   She had regular blackouts and took 10 different prescription medications, and died as a result of lung and heart problems, hypertension and chronic renal failure.

Despite her condition she was found to be ‘fit for work’ by Atos, and she received the news that her benefits had been cut off while she was in hospital.  Her husband described how: ‘I sat there and listened to my wife drown in her own body fluids. It took half an hour for her to die – and that’s a woman who’s ‘fit for work’. The last months of her life were a misery because she worried about her benefits, feeling useless, like a scrounger.’

This awful story is by no means unique.   In 2012 the government’s own figures found that 10, 600 people had died the previous year within six weeks of being declared fit for work.  Criticism from within the political mainstream, such as it is, has largely focused on the supposed incompetence of Atos, the principal contractor which carries out the Department of Work and Pension’s incapacity benefits assessments.

In February a parliamentary report headed by Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts accused the DWP of ‘getting far too many decisions wrong on claimants’ ability to work’, thus causing ‘ considerable cost to the taxpayer and. . . misery and hardship to the claimants themselves’.

Not much doubt about that. But the broader social and political forces that led a seriously ill woman feeling ‘useless, like a scrounger’ in the last months of her life because she received help from the state cannot be limited to the incompetence or the over-zealous pursuit of government targets by a company that will clearly do anything for money.   Nor are such outcomes simply a result of a flawed but well-meaning attempt to save ‘the taxpayer’ money.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,  the party organizes a daily ‘two-minute hate’ to mobilize popular support for the regime,  in which workers stand before the omnipresent telescreen to be whipped up into a frenzy of quasi-erotic loathing and rage at ‘Goldstein’ and other enemies of the party.

Orwell was writing primarily about the one-party regimes of the mid-twentieth century, when political control relied heavily on choreographed public spectacles involving mass crowds, parades, show trials, orchestrated chanting and other forms of manipulation through the mass media.   This particular combination was something of a novelty, but it also belonged to  a syndrome which has been repeated again and again in many historical contexts; the creation of a virtuous ‘imagined community’ through the demonisation and vilification of outsiders and particular social groups.

Examples of these tendencies abound in many in many different ways; the construction of ‘heresy’ by the Church in medieval and early modern Europe; the witchburning craze; the depiction of the poor as a a ‘dangerous class’ and its concomitant persecution through the 19th century Poor Laws; the representation of ‘foreigners’ and ‘aliens’ in many different societies; McCarthyism; Stalinism, anti-Semitism.

This process can happen for many different reasons and at different levels of intensity.  But the essential dynamic, as the Harvard psychologist Gordon Alport once recognized in his classic study of prejudice many years ago, demands that the creation of the ‘in-group’ is dependent on the construction of an ‘out-group’ that cannot belong to the former and even threatens its existence.

Today in the UK, this dynamic has been played out with a ruthless and consistent intensity that has no parallel in modern British history as a direct result of the current ‘age of austerity’.  On the one hand politicians and the media have relentlessly cultivated a fantasy image of a virtuous in-group consisting of ‘taxpayers’ or ‘hard-working people’ and ‘hard-working families’, in order to depict the unemployed,  benefits or disability claimants and the ‘feckless poor’ as parasites, scroungers, and a burden on the state.

At other times the out-group is defined as Muslims who don’t and can’t share ‘our’ values; or assorted foreigners, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, who are represented as equally feckless and parasitical intruders on British soil and threaten ‘our’ housing, jobs, schools and health service.

No one can doubt that these efforts have been extremely successful. In effect, the political class has mobilised and to some extent institutionalized social hatreds that were once marginalised and shameful and should have been confined to the dankest moral basement in order to distract attention from its own failings – and its own abject collusion with the forces that caused the crisis and which have made the UK one of the most unequal societies on earth.

Today there is no need for orchestrated crowd spectacles or ‘two-minute’ hates or ‘hate weeks’ to achieve this.    Instead anger and hatred course effortless through the British – and particularly English – body politic all year and every year flows like venom in the bloodstream, oozing out across the country  through the homes of middle England and beyond.

No telescreen is required when so many other transmission belts are available, in  newspaper columns, in ‘poverty porn’ programs like Benefits Street; in Internet websites, and comments columns; in baseless and dishonest depictions of Romanian and Bulgarian invasions; in the strange political disease that is Ukip;  in the continued popularity of one of the most callous and disgraceful governments this country has ever seen – a government that has no compunction about driving men and women to suicide and premature death.

Such a government should be looking towards one of the most serious political defeats that any British government has ever experienced.   After all, we are talking about a government that has carefully and meticulously devised a remarkably vindictive set of laws, controls and procedures, aimed at victimising and persecuting people who are more often than not at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

But then the point of all these measures is to conceal that any such hierarchy exists, and construct a fake community in which we all equal – except for those deviant outsiders who are taking advantage of our generosity and goodness, who must be quietly but consistently hated.

That is why a sick woman who should have been supported, was made to feel ‘useless, like a scrounger’ in the months before she died.   Because the government has invited the population to feel righteous contempt for people like her, and – shamefully – too many people have accepted the invitation.

And until that changes, such things are likely to happen again and again.

Who Likes the Daily Mail?

Readers of this blog will know that I’m not a massive fan of the Daily Mail.  And if I keep returning to it, that’s because the cursed thing is impossible to ignore.  It squats there in the centre of British public life with its 4.3 million readers like a giant toad,  a constant reminder of everything that I most detest about British society.

It dogs my footsteps as I go about my daily business, projecting baleful headlines into my head about migrants, asylum seekers, scroungers, foreigners, Eastern Europeans in England’s green and pleasant land,  day after day, year after year.  I’d have to be blind to ignore them.

And yet I’m often struck by the fact that (some) Daily Mail readers are nicer than the newspaper itself.   This isn’t entirely surprising.   On one level it’s not too difficult to be nicer than the Mail.

After all we are talking about ‘journalists’ like Richard Littlejohn, whose attack on a transgender teacher may have contributed to her suicide.  Or Hannah Roberts, who recently wrote a repellent story claiming that the 89 Eritrean survivors of the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck disaster had fled ‘free accommodation’ in Rome and were ‘heading for countries with generous benefits’ 

You have to be flying at a pretty low altitude – well beneath the level of the average gutter – to write something like that about people who’ve just seen 359 migrants drowned, including children.  But the Mail has been occupying this flight path for a very long time.

As far back as 1900 it was in Southampton to observe the arrival of some 350 Jewish refugees from the Boer War on board the Cheshire, or rather ‘so-called refugees’ as its reporter called them.  Being Jews, they had to be fake of course, and the Mail‘s man-on-the-spot even found that they had brought back smuggled ‘gold’ with them.

The Mail wasn’t too keen on Jewish refugees arriving from the Third Reich either.   Typical headlines of the 1930s included gems such as ‘ Refugees Get Jobs, Britons Get Dole’ and ‘German Jews pouring into the country,’ not to mention  ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts.’

On 28 March 1938, the year in which Hitler’s persecution of the Jews rose to a new level, the Mail rejected the idea that Britain should offer them protection on the grounds that: ‘To be ruled by misguided sentimentalism would be disastrous. Once it was known that Britain offered sanctuary to all who cared to come, the floodgates would be opened and we would be inundated by thousands seeking a home.’

Plus ca change then.   And yet I’m constantly amazed by the people I come across who are not racists or bigots,  who are otherwise sweet, intelligent, and thoughtful, were it not for the sight of the Mail in their hands.  And it’s clear that not all these readers actually accept the rancid bile that pours from its pages.

This discrepancy is sometimes evident in the comments section. Not long ago, the Mail attacked Ed Miliband for his announcement that he would be taking on energy companies,  but a stream of readers said that they agreed with him.  And today, the Mail did something that it likes to do do around this time of year, and regaled its readers with a colourful feature on the luxury items that billionaires and the super-rich like to buy themselves for Xmas.

These trinkets include a ’50million Trump SoHo New York penthouse’, a million Sky Yacht private jet’, a ’14-night photo safari at Wilderness Collection properties in Botswana, Kenya’ a ‘collection of Hervé Van der Straeten furniture’ (‘ a comparable bargain for $460,000’) and a ‘$62 million tree house.’

All these items are  drawn from the Robb Report’s 2013 gift guide, ‘ the gift guide for billionaires who have been VERY good this year’, as the Mail jauntily describes it.  Now the Mail isn’t blind to the fact that we are living in a time of ‘austerity’.   On the contrary,  it constantly reminds its readers that ‘our people’ are facing hard times, if only to blame the Labour government, scroungers and foreigners for causing them.

Yet it still likes to publish these fluffy, half-jokey, half-admiring pieces about the conspicuous consumption of the super-rich in the belief that its readers will be similarly amused.   Look through the comments section however, and you find that a number of readers don’t get the joke.   Here’s a random sample:

‘A gift? Maybe donate that money to someone who is dying of starvation.’

‘my disabled son lives in a house that can only be described as a ‘slum dwelling’ but there is no other property landlord available that will take him because the government has allowed private Landlords to become ‘feudal landlords’ (outside decency) a law unto themselves.’

‘Not since the late 18th century has the gap between the rich and the poor been so obscenely wide.’

‘Anyone who has that amount of money to spend on crap they don’t need should have it taken away and given to charity. What a sick and twisted world we live in where people are suffering and dying because they are so poor at the same times that others are spending millions on self indulgent nonsense.’

So the obvious question is why do people who think like this read a newspaper like the Mail?   One answer is their social profile.  The majority of the Mail’s readership comes from the ‘C1’ and ‘C2’ demographics, defined as  the lower middle class and skilled workers respectively, which would seem to confirm its historical trajectory as the voice of ‘little Englander’ prejudice and resentment.

Few of these readers are likely to have any contact with the billionaire lifestyle that the Mail essentially celebrated today.   You could argue that their demographic is in keeping with the petite bourgeois resentments and prejudices that the Mail has expressed so consistently and fervently for such a long time, and which once led it to embrace fascism.

As Marx pointed out, the petite bourgeoisie hovers uneasily between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, wanting to be the class above it and yet fearful of its own extinction and proletarianisation, so it’s quite natural that the Mail should be in awe of the super-rich, while occasionally having a poke at ‘greedy bankers’.

But wait: Research carried out by the Mail’s sales team in 2011 found that 61 percent of its readers belong something called ‘Modern MidBritain’ – a category defined as  ‘ diverse, open-minded, well-educated, caring, brand-aware, powerful, proactive and influential’.  More than 53 percent of its readers are women, for whom one of the main attractions is the Femail section.

Others visit its online website to take a peak at the celebrity cleavage which tends to pour out of the Mail’s righthand column like an endless succession of faux-Transylvanian barmaids from a Hammer horror film.

After all, who can resist headlines like ‘ She can’t keep her clothes on: Poppy Delevingne strips for racy video… just days after her hen night turns into saucy slumber party.’  Or ‘Wonderbra launches Holly Willoughby-inspired lingerie that promises to make embarrassing nipple slips a thing of the past.’

Isn’t that enough to make your Calvin Klein leisurewear go clammy?

So there are lots of reasons why people buy the Mail, which may have nothing to do with its immigrant-hating, asylum-bashing essential vileness.    But for the sake of the health of British politics, I really wish that some of them would stop.

Because if you care about social injustice, poverty, fairness,  and inequality, as many of those who commented today clearly do, then you are not going to get many ideas on what to do about it from a newspaper that would always prefer you to think about something else.

So please, if you really care about these things just cancel your subscription and step outside into the fresh air, and find something else to read that also cares about them.

You’ll feel better for it.   And so will we all.

 

 

 

Disabled people: heroes or scapegoats?

I wish the Paralympics well, but I can’t help noting a certain discrepancy between the celebration of the Games and the distinctly less celebratory attitudes towards the disabled that are prevalent in British society.

Yesterday David Cameron said that the Games will ‘inspire a lot of people and change people’s views on disability’.  This inspirational message is based on the rejection of the idea that disabled people are less important or less valuable members of society, and the triumphant testament to the human ability to overcome adversity.

All this is good and necessary.  But Cameron’s upbeat message is somewhat at odds with the actions and rhetoric of his government, which have contributed directly to a change in popular attitudes towards disability that has been largely negative.

At present hate crimes against disabled people are at an all time high, with 1,942 reported crimes in 2011.   In June this year the Independent found that ‘ Disability hate crime has doubled since the start of the financial crisis in 2008’ while the numbers of convictions for such crimes has fallen.

The Independent also reported that

Disability charities receive a constant flow of reports about incidents that are never reported to police – from families who have been forced out of their homes by relentless targeting, to disabled teenagers who avoid groups of strangers for fear of what might be said to them.

A number of charities and organizations working with disabled people have attributed this increase in hostility to ‘anti-scrounger’ rhetoric emanating from the Coalition government and its supporters in the tabloid press, with its relentless insinuation that  people claiming disability benefits are frauds and parasites routinely conning the taxpayer.

Such rhetoric has an obvious appeal for a government that has committed itself to an unprecedented – and unpopular – swathe of public sector spending cuts in the name of austerity and deficit reduction.    In this context the idea that disabled people are cheating the system provide a convenient distraction from the broader systemic failures that have led to the current crisis.

‘Anti-scrounger’ rhetoric has also served to justify cruel and punitive policies aimed at reducing the numbers of disabled people claiming benefits.   The government’s determination to increase the numbers of disabled people deemed ‘fit to work’ regardless of their physical condition is often fraudulently presented as a form of social inclusion, rather than the ruthless cost-cutting exercise that it actually is.

Anyone doubting the ruthlessness of this agenda should consider  the Daily Mirror’s Investigations team, which reported in April that 1,100 sickness benefits claimants had died between January and August last year after they were put in the ‘work-related activity group’ that received a reduced level of benefits and was expected to go out and look for work.

These deaths included a warehouse worker with a degenerative lung condition,  who was told after his medical test for Employment and Support Allowance that he would be fit to return to work within three months, even though he had difficulty walking and breathing, and who died before the three months was up.

Many of these ‘work capability assessments’ are administered by the government’s pet company Atos Healthcare, one of the official sponsors of the Paralympics.  Atos has received widespread criticism from disability campaigners  for profiting from the government’s welfare reform agenda at the expense of disabled people.

Atos has also been criticized by MPs for its inadequate performance, and also by the National Audit Office, which has questioned the quality of testing procedures in which four out every ten benefit claimants categorized as fit for work have successfully appealed against these decisions.

It’s worth bearing this in mind as the Paralympics takes off and politicians and corporations seek to bathe in its life-affirming slipstream,  so that the Games does not become a smokescreen and a feelgood distraction from one of the more the more sordid and inhuman manifestations of the government’s brutalist austerity programme.

Because for every athlete who has made the extraordinary journey to the London arena, there are tens of thousands of disabled people who depend for their wellbeing and survival on a safety net that is being inexorably stripped away from them,  by the same politicians who are promoting the Paralympics as a shining example of inclusivity.