Here are two true stories:
A friend of mine once picked up a hitch-hiker at a motorway service station. The bloke looked a bit down on his luck, so my friend asked what his story was. The guy said he’d been living in service stations, bathing in the shower facilities at lorry-driver stops, for several days as he tried to make his way from one end of the country to the other to where a hotel job was waiting for him if he could get there. He’d lost all his benefits and had no way to get the money to take a train or bus.
My friend gave this man all the money he had in his pocket, which was £60. The man seemed genuinely overwhelmed and grateful, seemingly unable to believe that someone would give him a fairly serious amount of money within minutes of meeting him, on the basis of the story he’d just related.
I asked my friend whether he thought the man had been genuine, or might he have been ripped off? His answer was that his gut instinct was that the man was for real – but that if he wasn’t, he’d rather be conned than be hard-hearted and risk ignoring someone in genuine need.
By contrast, the incredibly rich (some $287 billion in today’s money) industrialist Andrew Carnegie once famously said that it would be better for the world if a rich man threw his millions into the sea rather than give any to the ‘unworthy’. To be fair to Carnegie, he gave away a vast proportion of his wealth – but the rich and privileged have a long history of presuming that, from their pinnacle of wealth and comfort, they are able to decide who is ‘worthy’ and who isn’t. The concept of the ‘deserving poor‘, by denoting that some poor are by definition not deserving, has resulted in great suffering while allowing the wealthy to feel satisfied with their lack of concern or action.
The current crop of Tories are truly in line with their predecessors in this regard – except that they’re even worse. Even though they can’t possibly be ignorant of the consequences, they push this line in the most cynical way, with the aim of dividing the British public, fooling the undiscerning into allowing or even approving of policies aimed at stripping the vulnerable of crucial protections. And for the basest of reasons – for short-term political gain (persuading some people that the Tories are ‘at least doing something about something!’), and to release even more public funds that can be channelled into tax-cuts for the already-rich or even greater profits for private corporations.
With their limited moral imagination, the Tories really only know two tactics. Both are calculated to appeal to the baser instincts of the small-minded and thoughtless: fear and vilification. There may be different facets or manifestations – they might try to invoke suspicion, or envy, or to dehumanise or caricature one set of people to get another set to back their policies – but the roots are the same.
I’m working on a post about economic fear and the way that’s fostered by government spokespeople and tame media, but it’s proving to be quite a big project and I’m not going to be online much over the next few days, so it will be a little while in coming. But the other tactic – vilification or demonisation of the vulnerable or resistant – is so plain that this post almost writes itself. Whether explicitly or in the omission, the Tories are at it constantly.
Just in recent weeks, we’ve had:
- Iain Duncan-Smith accusing Britons of not working hard enough, while bare-facedly distorting figures on fraudulent claims for disability benefit (claiming a 30% fraud rate when in fact it’s bare over one percent) to gain public support for his hateful Welfare Reform Act.
- A smug Frances Maude announcing that the bottom 10% of civil servants has a year to improve or be fired – conveniently leaving out the fact that if everyone in the civil service was a workaholic genius, there would still be a bottom 10%. Being at the bottom doesn’t mean you’re incompetent or unproductive. He insists that this is not an ‘attack’ on the civil service, even though at the same time he’s making cuts of 25% in civil servant numbers and talking of removing any terms and conditions that are better than those of the private sector that the Tories and their pals have already robbed.
- Andrew Lansley calling on doctors not to take industrial action and having his department and tame journalists conduct an orchestrated propaganda campaign to persuade the public that doctors are rich, privileged, selfish and uncaring of their patients (‘After all’, he might as well say, ‘we’ve robbed the rest of the public sector, why should doctors be any different?’) This in spite of the fact that the doctors’ pension scheme is not in shortfall and that the Health Secretary, having specifically abdicated his legal responsibility for healthcare provision in his new Health & Social Care Act, is really not entitled to comment one way or the other, let alone to impose new pension terms.
- David Cameron underlining again that the Tories are on the side of ‘strivers’, thereby saying that they’re not on the side of anyone who can’t strive, or who simply wants to live a decent, balanced life.
- Iain Duncan-Smith (again!) announcing plans to remove benefits from anyone who dares strike against the removal of pay, pensions, conditions and protection that is now the norm for the treatment of ordinary working people.
- Claims by Communities Minister Eric Pickles, vocally supported by Housing Minister Grant Shapps and many others, and by the right-wing press, that the UK has 120,000 ‘problem families’ who cause 80% of societal problems, even though not one of the criteria used to decide who is a ‘problem family’ relates to criminality, but instead refer to poverty and physical or mental illness.
- Endlessly repeated soundbites about ‘benefit scroungers’ to justify capping housing benefit, even though the vast majority of people receiving this benefit are working, but can’t afford outrageous rents.
- Cameron and others vilifying transport workers for daring to plan industrial action during the Olympic Games money-making exercise, even though industrial action is really their only negotiating weapon and it’s perfectly sensible for them to aim it at the periods when it will be most effective. The Tories really do want a workforce that’s powerless to stand up for itself.
I could go on, but I want to keep this post to a readable length.
The aim of all these policies and pronouncements is very clear: persuading whichever sections of the public that are not affected by a particular measure that those who are affected are not worthy of support, and definitely not worthy of help.
The consequences of these and other Tory measures are not hard to imagine – and they’re already being played out. Disabled, ill or mentally ill people spend their days in fear at the prospect of having their benefits stopped because they’re ludicrously assessed as fit for work, while some even attempt or commit suicide. People are forced to accept part-time ‘work’ that offers few (or even zero!) hours while the government crows that it has reduced unemployment; jobless people are forced to work for free and sleep under bridges by companies who ruthlessly exploit them to maximise profit. And so on.
In this context, it’s patently clear that the Tories’ policies, attitudes, sleaze, self-enrichment and their unholy alliance with powerful corporate and media interests show that they are not fit to judge a vegetable show, let alone judge whether a vulnerable person is ‘worthy’ of help.
Fortunately, we get to choose whether we believe them. To choose whether we agree with the kind of approach to life that says that, while no system is perfect, it’s much better to err on the side of goodness than of suspicion and selfishness, that it’s better to set up or protect systems that protect the genuine many than one which might prevent a very few ‘playing the system’ but that also strands people in genuine need in a situation of despair. We have the privilege of deciding what kind of society we want to be.
From everything I’ve written, you’ll probably have guessed that I absolutely agree with my friend, rather than with Carnegie, about which side it’s better to err on. But Mr Carnegie did say something that I agree with very much:
‘A man who dies rich dies disgraced’
In our current government, and in the people who support and fund them, we have a lot of walking ‘disgraces in the making’. Let’s think for ourselves, see them for what they are, and not make it easy for them to become even bigger disgraces than they already are.