Ghosts and Ghouls: a Blog for Halloween!
I’ve been quiet for a while – recovering from the conference season in general and the Tory/FibDem shows in particular. But since it’s Halloween it struck me that the it’s an appropriate day to reflect on the ghosts of Tory past policies that the ‘nasty’ party (parties if we include FibDems and UKIP) is revisiting on us today
The ‘nasty’ theme ran through the coalition conferences – loading all the responsibility for paying for their banker chums’ destruction of the economy in 2008 and blaming the poor and working people for their own (mis)management of the economy since (5 years of Tory mis-rule?). Parallels with the thinking behind the Poor Laws of 1834 and what is happening today are surprisingly clear. For example, the 1832 Poor Law Commission proposed the new Poor Law should be governed by two overarching principles:
I have a terrible feeling of déjà vu here – how close is this to what IDS, the Chancellor and the Coalition are implementing, albeit using different terminology?
A couple of articles in the Guardian of the last week or so brought home to me what these ‘posh boys’ in Parliament are really up to and just how nasty they are.
On the 21st October, two apparently unrelated columns in the paper gave me pause for thought. The first – an opinion piece by former prison governor John Podmore – reported that official figures show as many as 6 prisoners a month (a month!) are taking their own lives. Despite acute alarm expressed by the prison and probation ombudsman (Nigel Newcomen), the chief inspector of prisons (Nick Hardwick) and the Howard League for Penal Reform (Frances Crook), the ghoulish Chris Grayling, Justice (sic) Secretary, insists the service is not in crisis (crisis, what crisis?). Mr Podmore went on to argue that prisons run best when staff are properly trained and develop relationships with prisoners, focused on rehabilitation and, crucially, keeping the mentally ill out of prison! Alas, this requires investment in time, management training and support but the ‘tough on crime’ agenda, reduction in spending, hiving off of prisons and probation to the spectral private sector and contempt for the Human Rights Act can only lead to an increase in deaths – from suicides and violence in our prisons.
This was bad enough, but on the same day in another opinion piece, Aditya Chakrabortty quoting Gandhi as above, expressed his continuing disgust at the way the Coalition treats disabled people, as he put it “…with a scarcely believable callousness.” His piece was prompted not just by the musings of Lord Freud on the possibility of disabled people working for £2 per hour (because they’re worth it?), but also that the benefits cuts and reforms introduced by Freud and his fellow ministers – IDS, Osborne and Cameron – have hit the disabled more than any other single group, not least the hated and discredited ‘bedroom tax’, scrapping the Independent Living Fund (for 19,000 severely disabled people), and the fit for work assessment fiasco – ghostly echoes of the ‘workhouse test’.
The evidence (again) is clear; Demos reports that 120,000 disabled people face losing a number of core disability benefits all at once and 99,000 face cuts to four benefits at the same time, while detailed analysis of the cuts by the Centre for Welfare Reform shows that, compared to the average, people with disabilities are being hit 9 times harder by austerity and for those with severe disabilities, 19 times harder than the average. I work with the disabled every day and can only reinforce from personal experience what the statistics show.
What’s worse, the ‘scrounger’ rhetoric, fiercely promoted by the Coalition includes the disabled by default just because they are not as well as the rest of us. The result? Hate crimes against disabled people up 13% since 2011, 40% of such incidents being violent! As Chakrabortty points out, the Government’s strategy of driving people off benefits into cut price employment is futile in the case of the disabled since “…no amount of guff about shirking will make them less disabled”. A heroic young lady Angela Smith – a masters graduate from Warwick University who has cerebral palsy – expressed bewilderment at why, given that Cameron’s own son had a similar condition to hers, he couldn’t “…use his personal experience to make better policies”. Why indeed!
As if this weren’t enough, the following day (22nd October), George Monbiot brought it all together, on both the domestic and international stage, and suddenly it all became clear. He pointed out that in order to ‘blot people out of existence’, they must first be blotted from your mind. Only then, can you persuade yourself that what you are doing is both moral and necessary enabling you to act without compassion by using systems of thought and language which shields you (and blinds everyone else) to the consequences. He also cited Lord Freud and the use of words allegedly (you need to see the somersaults Hansard is making to deny it) to describe the change in the number of disabled people likely to receive ESA as ‘a bulge in stock’! Apparently, use of the word ‘stock’ is common currency for government departments to describe disabled people who engage with them and their programmes. Similarly benefits claimants don’t live in families but ‘benefit units’ and if you have the misfortune to die while on a government work programme, Monbiot points out that officially you are a ‘completer’, which I’m sure makes the deceased extremely happy. Monty Python couldn’t have made this up – it’s almost beyond belief, or it would be if it weren’t true.
The rest of his article ranged far and wide internationally, covering the way words and phrases hide what is really happening in and to the natural world as well as to human beings. So in the recent Gaza conflict for example, Israeli military commanders described the killing of over 2000 (mostly civilians) as ‘mowing the lawn’; apparently a term used by the US administration for the impact of its drone attacks in Pakistan (also killing – or in the parlance ‘neutralising’ – innocent civilians). His point which is obvious when you think about it, is that if government and the media continually use ‘sanitised, trivialised, belittling terms‘ to describe those people they are attempting to blame or demonise, is it any wonder that the population as a whole will adopt and hide behind the same rhetoric? It’s easy to self-justify attacking the vulnerable emotionally, physically or metaphorically if they are described as scroungers, units or stock responsible for all the ills and problems society faces and suffers from (think ‘illegal aliens’ to describe immigrants too). In other words, we need to speak plainly and clearly about what is going on, who it is affecting and how – reclaim the debate in words everyone can immediately understand.
Nothing illustrates this demonization of ‘others’ more than the appalling statement sneaked out in a written answer by the new Foreign Office Minister, Lady Anelay (who is she by the way? a ghost from the past maybe?) that the government will no longer support rescue operations for ‘migrants’ – note the language, migrants not refugees – from war torn states, mostly Syria and Eritrea, trying to cross the Mediterranean. Apparently, the Government view is that the more people drown trying to reach Europe, the fewer will try, hence solving the ‘pull factor’ problem! As Cameron’s former speech writer Ian Birrell pointed out in the Guardian on 29th October, it’s high time this nation was jolted out of its senses and restored its reputation for decency rather than play along with the “…toxic nature of the immigration debate poisoning the political discourse in Britain…”. He cites our failure to confront the myths and misinformation spread by ‘misanthropes’ (UKIP and the Tories?), which results in ‘a politics fuelled by fear and pessimism’. The scale of the invasion, or swamping to use Michael Fallon’s ridiculous term, can be judged by the fact that whereas Germany has taken in 20,000 Syrian refugees – and let’s call them that for it’s what they are, not migrants – in the last 7 months, we have taken in just 100!
What the Coalition has persistently done, with little or no voice raised against it either in Parliament or outside it seems to me, is to use deceptive language and terminology to introduce austerity policies which don’t work in theory and have been proven worldwide not to work in practice, and immigration policies which effectively shift the blame for the inequality crisis on to people coming to Britain to work or seek refuge. More to the point, the disregard bordering on contempt for the vulnerable, prisoners, refugees, legal immigrants, the mentally ill and disabled has been deliberately orchestrated to de-humanise them in the eyes of the public at large on the flimsy pretext that the cuts disproportionately affecting them are first necessary and second sufficient to reduce the deficit – itself a distortion of economic reality both in theory and practice.
And that’s the thread which draws these three articles together – an assault by the Government on the ability of the vulnerable to participate in 21st Century Britain and ultimately thrive and prosper, and a total lack of interest in the implications for those people less fortunate than themselves. The policies and language are ghoulish in the extreme and ghostly in their appearance – dredged up from the graveyard of failed policies from the past. Be afraid; be very afraid, the coalition zombies are coming for us all!
Which brings me back to a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.’ What are we going to do about it?