Today made me think of a couple of Westerns. In one of my favourites, Tombstone, a member of Curly Bill’s gang has been killed. Even though this gang of Cowboys has terrorised the town for years, the gang arranges a grand funeral and marches the coffin through the streets expecting everyone to pay their respects.
In the other, The Magnificent Seven, the bandit tyrant who has impoverished the villages for years justifies leaving them to starve by explaining how onerous are the responsibilities of leadership. He is so wrapped up in his own myth that he expects the people he is robbing to feel sorry for the ‘weight’ he has to carry.
In similar fashion, the Tories have paraded the pomp of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘state in all but name’ funeral in front of us all, with no regard or sensitivity for the misery inflicted on ordinary people by Thatcher’s policies when she was Prime Minister – or for the miseries that are being re-intensified by the current government and inflicted on vast numbers.
Just like Eli Wallach’s bandit character in The Magnificent Seven, Tories have shown no embarrassment as they have shamelessly distorted the truth and rewritten history to eulogise Mrs Thatcher. If they were to be believed, she all but saved the world and turned Britain from a 3rd-world country into a paragon of prosperity.
The divisiveness of her policies, and the misery they inflicted, are brushed aside as ‘tough decisions that had to be made’. One former Tory minister, who claimed to have been elected by a mining community, even went so far as to blame the victims. After all, his community in the Midlands had ‘picked itself up and got on with it’ after their pits were closed – so those in South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, the North, Scotland and Wales just didn’t try hard enough to get back on their feet. They only have themselves to blame, apparently.
Eli Maggie. Rotten, lazy old villagers miners and their families. Don’t they realise the burden of power and responsibility? How dare they bemoan their miserable little wounds when Maggie was only doing it all because she had to.
The crassness of it all was no less staggering for the plummy voices of those justifying it.
A million miles away from the vile pomp and circumstance, a very different set of events was taking place. A very different ‘Maggie’ was at the Job Centre facing the consequences of the policies initiated by Margaret Thatcher and continued by her ideological children.
Her name isn’t really ‘Maggie’. I’ve changed it to protect her identity. But as she represents the end of the supposed rainbow that Thatcher’s ‘light’ created, it’s as good a pseudonym as any.
The living ‘Maggie’ is 29 and barely literate. Her only experience of work is a temporary Christmas job in a shop, and she has a couple of young children. She lives on one of the town’s poorer estates, where the unemployment rate is extremely high even for part of a town which has one of the highest rate of unemployment in the country.
Magge had received a letter from the local Jobcentre Plus on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) advising her,
You must do everything you reasonably can to find work and to improve your chances of being employed. In order to help you with this, we require you to take the following action:
(I’m going to paste an image of the description of ‘the following action’, so you believe it really was written like it was)
Maggie would struggle to read good English. I’m a writer, yet even I struggled to parse that passage, which has various random capitalisations, lacks commas where they are needed and misses the occasional word – and which runs one clause into another without punctuation.
To make things worse still, the letter refers to a ‘my skills questionnaire’, when in fact the questionnaire is called a ‘my strengths’ questionnaire – more than enough to terrify someone with poor reading skills and low self-confidence that they might be completing the wrong documents and suffer a benefit ‘sanction’.
But even if the letter had been perfectly worded and completely accurate, the expectations it contained are ludicrous:
– Apply for 3 jobs via websites
– Register with 3 agencies and apply for jobs through them
– Complete 15 prospective jobs (whatever that means – we worked it out eventually)
All in the space of the couple of days from the arrival of the letter to today. I’m highly literate, and I like to think I’m no stranger to organisation and effort – but I would have struggled to complete all that in the time available. Especially with a couple of young kids.
‘Complete 15 prospective jobs’ turned out to mean completing this form:
‘Identify a list of employers…business directories..or the internet may be useful’.
‘Identify why you would like to work for the organisation; think about the type of organisation..how your personality and skills would fit…research the company ethos’
Identify a contact name; to maximise your chances of success, identify the person who deals with employment for your chosen organisation, and contact them directly’
‘This will allow you to build up rapport with an employer’.
‘Ethos’, ‘rapport’ – and a detailed, intensive series of actions, to be completed for 15 companies in a couple of days. By someone who can barely read or write. And if you can’t do it – we’ll sanction your benefits.
The ‘My Strengths’ task was no less ridiculous. The worksheet begins:
When applying for jobs it is important to emphasise your strengths and abilities..This exercise has been scientifically shown to find people’s strengths..
The website will ask you to complete 48 questions. This should only take you 10 minutes.
48 questions?! A woman who can barely read is told to enter a website address, answer 48 questions in less than 10 minutes – one of the early ones is “When the topic called for it, I can be a highly rational thinker”! – and all in addition to the ’15 prospective jobs’, working out how to apply for jobs on 3 job websites and visiting 3 employment agencies to register and apply for at least one job at each.
Edit: an even ‘better’ question was ‘In the last month, I have been thrilled by excellence in music, art, drama, film, sport, science or mathematics’. What are these people on?!
And, just to put icing on the cake, once the strengths questionnaire is completed and the respondent has entered his/her email address and received a copy of the 5 strengths (!), he or she is expected to:
aim to use each of your strengths in a new way everyday (sic) for at least a week.
Leaving aside the impossibility of using strengths in a new way for at least a week in a period of a couple of days, what staggers me about all this is the absolute lack of even the remotest commonsense appreciation of the reality and limitations faced by a lot of long-term unemployed people. Whoever wrote this letter and the forms that came with it clearly had not the faintest idea of the lack of skills and confidence of a lot of unemployed people from poor backgrounds, nor of how to communicate in a way they might understand.
‘Maggie’ was absolutely thrown into a panic by this letter when she received it. Life is hard enough with state support, and the fear that her benefits would be stopped if she couldn’t complete this impossible set of tasks in a couple of days. Fortunately, she went round to see some friends of mine who live near her, and they were able to help her get at least the basics done, even if the exercise and its results were meaningless. She has more chance of winning the lottery than of finding a job via that process, even if she manages to complete it with help.
The process, the way the letters were written and the ridiculous expectations betrayed a staggering callousness, lack of empathy and a complete ignorance of the daily reality faced by millions of people; people that this country has failed, abandoned – and then blamed for their plight, just like the idiot former minister blamed mining communities for not making enough effort.
That social psychopathy, and the swaggering arrogance of those who ordain it, is Margaret Thatcher’s real legacy – that and the misery of millions that it ignores.
And on the day she was buried, the way our living ‘Maggie’ was treated showed what a travesty the decision to award her a state funeral in all but name really is.