Archive for politics

Have We Become a Nation of Scrooges?

David Cameron recently called for Britain to return to Christian values.

Well, as a non-believer, I’d prefer not to sign up to the actual religion, but I agree some of the values are very much worth preserving. And for me, especially at this time of year, those values are largely summed up by the story of A Christmas Carol - a traditional family tale which should be well up Cameron’s street, surely.

But is he, and are we, really listening to its message? It’s a very clear message, made plain from early on when Scrooge is approached to give to charity.

“Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

Earlier this year, Ken Clarke’s attempt at prison reform was blocked because the government didn’t want to be ‘soft’ on crime.

“I don’t make merry myself at Christmas [said Scrooge] and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

The government and the right-wing media are full of attacks on benefit fraudsters, ‘scroungers’, and ‘handouts’. But 96% of calls to the National Benefit Fraud Hotline are malicious or timewasting. Of 254,000 calls to the hotline in 2009/10, only 1.3% resulted in a claimant being sanctioned for fraud. The Guardian has also reported that most cases of ‘fraud’ are actually error.

Meanwhile, ATOS is blithely pronouncing people fit to work on the basis of primitive tests and a brief interview. Not that they can get jobs, because there aren’t enough jobs to go round, and employers frequently discriminate against disabled people either overtly or covertly.

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides – excuse me – I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.

There was a call recently for better-off pensioners to donate their winter fuel payments to less well-off pensioners. David Cameron’s comment on this was: “I would not want to see any pressure put on people to do something that might not be in their best interests.”

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Ken Clarke said after the riots: ”In my opinion our feral underclass in this country is too big, it has been growing, and now needs to be diminished.”

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.

“…This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty will rise by 800,000 by 2020. People with cancer could lose their benefits if they don’t get better fast enough, and disabled children are being targeted too. David Cameron has proposed stripping benefits from families where children regularly play truant.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Do I even have to mention bankers?

Is Scrooge really the role model we want to adopt? If so, let’s stop pretending that we have any respect for the (traditional) values of generosity, benevolence and kindness. And while I don’t believe in ghosts, this image from A Christmas Carol never fails to chill me.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Christmas Eve is this Saturday. Who’s on for putting on some chains and arranging a midnight visit to Cameron?

Or is it the whole country that needs deScrooging?


Blaming the Parents

In my last post I mentioned that a multitude of culprits have been fingered for the recent riots and looting. One of the front runners now seems to be The Parents, as illusrated by the disturbing news that the mother of one of the alleged rioters is to be evicted.

Generally speaking, blaming the parents is a popular exercise whenever someone commits a crime. And there is a certain degree of logic to it – though none whatsoever to evicting the parent of someone who hasn’t even been convicted of anything yet. I mean, what? But I absolutely believe that bad parenting can damage people, and I’m sure there are plenty of youths out there whose parenting was far from ideal.

However, doesn’t parent-blaming raise more questions than it answers? Assuming that the rioters’ parents didn’t instil traditional morality in them, didn’t control them, didn’t teach them not to smash in other people’s windows and set fire to shops,  or whatever it is that they’re being blamed for not doing -  why didn’t they? Why did these parents not know how to parent in a properly authoritarian manner?

Well, sticking with the same logic, presumably the fault lies with… the parents. The parents of the parents of the rioters can’t have brought the rioters’ parents up properly. Why not? Because of their parents. By now we’re three generations back and moving fast, because where do we stop? With that guy who apparently we’re all descended from? Then why aren’t we all criminals?

I am taking this argument to its logical conclusion not because it makes any sense, but because I want to argue that blaming parents for the action of their adult children is usually an unfair thing to do. I certainly don’t want to be held totally responsible for everything my children do throughout their lives. (Especially my eldest, who is already only a hairsbreadth away from opening her own evil underground lair.) Certainly I have a responsibility to be the best parent I can manage, but I believe that most parents mostly do try to be that, to the best of their abilities and opportunities. One of the problems is that everyone’s idea of what constitutes a good parent seems to be different (too much smacking? not enough smacking? too harsh? too lenient? too controlling? too neglectful? You can’t win this one). I suspect, too, that there’s a large element of classism, and perhaps racism, operating here: often the ‘right’ kind of parents are seen as the middle-class, white ones who have the money and general privilege which helps so much when bringing up children.

I would further point out that society puts a lot of pressure on people to become parents, without really providing many tools to help them know how to do it.

And finally, as has been pointed out extensively in the Guardian and elsewhere, the fact that a lot of the rioters seem to have been young and unemployed suggests that social injustice is far more of a factor in all this than anything else. A lot of these people are squashed between lack of jobs on one hand and steadily decreasing benefits on the other like a slice of cheese in a particularly depressed sandwich. Not an excuse, but surely a factor. (Incidentally, the petition to remove benefits from this group of people may be one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever come across. Do the petitioners understand how criminality works?)

Anyway: discussions of blame are everywhere already so I won’t add to them any further. I just wanted to make the point that saying the parents are solely respnsible for the actions of their children is basically turtles all the way down.


Looting the Beanstalk

I’ve been out of the UK this week, so have been following the UK riots online. Of course, now that they seem to be dying down, this has mainly meant skimming various theories about who’s to blame for it all. Those trying to work out why this happened – as opposed to those who just want the still-twitching entrails of the rioters strung up like fairy lights across the shops they destroyed – have come up with a multitude of culprits, some rather more believable than others.

Clearly, however, there can only be one right answer to the issue of why people riot, loot and destroy, because it’s well known that explanations for complicated events are always simple, single and satisfactory. And luckily, being geographically distanced from it all, I have the necessary perspective to state categorically what this particular answer answer is. It’s Jack and the Beanstalk.

Let me come clean. I am a bad parent. This week, I read my baby daughter a story in which a young boy who has no money breaks into a stranger’s house, steals from him, and destroys access to his property when he attempts to retrieve his goods. And this boy is the hero of the story! Watching my baby’s chubby fingers lovingly trace the outline of stolen gold coins, I suddenly realised the truth. Jack and the Beanstalk is a story about looting; and it’s regularly read to children everywhere. So is Goldilocks, another story in which the protagonist commits the offence of breaking and entering. Not to mention Alice in Wonderland, who takes food and drink wherever she goes without worrying about who they might belong to, and Peter Pan, who climbs through a window with his accomplice Tinkerbell and ramsacks a child’s bedroom. And we surely don’t need to mention Robin Hood and Brer Rabbit. Children are literally learning to steal  from their mother’s knee. In this case, my knee. My evil, evil knee.

So if people are blaming Grand Theft Auto, they’re not looking far enough back. I submit that Jack and the Beanstalk and its ilk are responsible for the current state of society, and I call for all copies of these stories to be burned and our folk memories of them to be erased from our heads.

Oh wait, we can’t do that yet. Never mind.




Candy punchbags

There’s an article in the comments section of the Guardian today, about Nick Clegg. I don’t have any particular issue with the article, but the title has rather annoyed me. (I know the author probably didn’t choose it.)

The title is: Nick Clegg, you chose to be coalition arm-candy, so accept being a punchbag

I don’t know, is that an implication that people who choose to be arm candy (i.e. usually young women) should be ok with being punchbags (i.e. beaten up) or am I reading far too much into it? I can’t decide.



Like 499,999 other people, I went on the March for the Alternative on Saturday. I don’t have any exciting stories to tell about it, but perhaps that’s worth saying in itself. I went with my family – including my children – and friends, including Choler, and it felt good.

The march from Westminster Bridge, around 3pm

I’d been dithering about whether to go all week. What if I got kettled? Should I take the children? (I suspected that taking my seven-year-old daughter into crowded central London might result in her escaping our clutches and joining some kind of inner-city street circus). Was I missing some important reason why the government’s cuts and changes were ok really? What if there really wasn’t an alternative? Or even if there was, would marching achieve anything? I’d read articles saying it never made any difference. And the UK isn’t Libya or Egypt: we aren’t living under an oppressive dictatorship; we have democracy; shouldn’t I just be grateful things weren’t worse?

In the end, it wasn’t hard to decide to go. I still feared kettling, but I knew the point of kettles was to discourage people from marching, so that was in itself a good reason to march. And as for my other concerns: well, I really don’t have anything to say about government policies that isn’t covered better elsewhere, so I’m just going to link to the letter I sent to my MP, Paul Burstow, for a summary of the things I’m worried about. I really don’t want to live in a country where disabled people are either viewed as impossible burdens or assumed to be fraudsters, or expected to get jobs when it’s hard enough to get work if you don’t need adjustments made. Or in a country where free state-run healthcare is something the government appears to be idealogically opposed to. Amongst other things.

Anyway, so we met in the pub and marched along the river as far as Westminster, where those of us with kids peeled off to give them food and avoid the biggest crowds. We were at the back of the march and the atmosphere was cheerful in a mass-protest kind of way. Our daughter blew a whistle and waved a Fire Brigade banner she’d found (and didn’t try to escape), our baby slept happily through it all, and we enjoyed being part of such a massive event.

Marching (very slowly)

My sole encounter with the police was with a very lovely policeman who helped me get the pushchair up several flights of staris when I got trapped between the river, the march and a closed tube station. He gets extra points for addressing me as ‘mate’ rather than ‘ma’am’ and not making any cracks about the fact that I was wearing my ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ teeshirt. (Obviously there’s no actual contradiction between being a feminist and needing someone to help you get a pushchair up steps, but people can be annoying.)

Like voting, one person marching doesn’t make much difference in itself, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.