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Dec. 8th, 2011

“You're all too cynical,” politicians routinely complain to the public. “And who started it?” the public retort. Look, I wouldn't normally quote myself but, damn it, it's pertinent:

… watching the Conservative party trying to care [is] almost as stressful for me as it must be for them. Education! The NHS! Social reform! The environment! … The sooner they stop having to harp on about the plight of the disadvantaged as if they think it’s a fit topic for conversation, the less likely the disadvantaged are to be fooled into thinking they have new friends. Also—admittedly less important but still a burning issue for this voter—I will be significantly less creeped out.

… it’s a depressing prospect: basically, about the same level of competence as the current incarnation of this administration but with even more tax-dodging and no public services. [The Web of Evil, 2 October 2008]

And so on. Still, however full of resigned foreboding (foreboreding?) I was then, I can safely say that even I was unprepared for this government's onslaught against—seriously, not even in my bitterest projections—the terminally ill. The disabled, sure, I had a fiver riding on them, but cancer patients? Trying to bounce them back to work with work assessments while sick, and then benefit cuts if they're still off work a year later?[1] Trying to quietly redefine "terminal illness" to cover only those given 12 months or less to live? If I had suggested that they would do a fraction of this, I'd have been shouted down for being hysterical.[2]

As some of you will know, my mother both works for the NHS and has had cancer, making her doubly suspect in coalition eyes. It's just over two years since she emerged from her operation, after which she had six months of chemotherapy that utterly laid waste to her, leaving her far more reduced than the disease and the surgery combined. The NHS kept her job open for her and she had a phased return to work as she slowly recovered from her treatment. (This was entirely thanks to European employment law, and I'm sure that plans have been drawn up to put a stop to that nonsense at the earliest possible opportunity.) Still, she says that only now could she say with confidence that she is back to being the person she was before she went into hospital for her initial operation.

I'm trying to consider dispassionately the possibility of her being dragged, mid-treatment and barely conscious, into a work assessment hearing with an unqualified idiot under intense (though officially denied) pressure to find her fit to work.[3] It's not important that that scenario defies all compassion; after all, any coalition member will tell you that we're dealing with a structural deficit and hard choices have to be made. It doesn't even matter that it defies all sense; like many coalition policies in this area—rehousing the poor, slashing incapacity benefit—the net result will end up costing even more than the current system, but what's important is that we're doing things differently around here. We're managing attitudes. No more of this “rights” shit. That's Mister Cameron to you.[4] No, what's important here is that it's beyond all parody. When your position can't be caricatured by exaggeration, something has gone horribly wrong.

Seriously, it's impossible at this point to cartoon the right wing's approach to anyone remotely vulnerable. Even those who think they're quite enlightened can't help but inadvertently display their baser attitudes; there's a reason why I keep on harping on about Lord Freud's incredibly revealing response about how “disabled” the disabled actually are. And the rage of the openly angry right wing does not stop at the poor and what they see as the workshy but roars onwards to encompass even the not entirely able-bodied and the sick.[5] The only time I have noticed a Conservative give even the semblance of a fuck is when their family or, more gratifyingly, they themselves are afflicted. Suddenly they're making speeches about the condition, publicly fundraising and determinedly defying the party whip when it demands they vote for charging for wheelchairs by the mile or whatever the hell fresh wheeze the DWP is brewing this week. Statistically, though, most of them are going to stay pretty healthy, so this is pretty much the course we're committed to for at least the next three years. And remember, if you are one of those with the bad taste to be affected, the government's relying on you to take heart and stay focused on the part where we're all in this together.

[1] In that article, Zoe Williams is fervently hoping that some of the more outrageous aspects of the reforms are actually a kind of departmental psyops, designed to soften us up for changes that are still bad but not as outright offensive and therefore will come as a positive relief. I used to hope the exact same thing about some of the bigger plans of the Blair administration. I was wrong. I'm just saying. Back

[2] Touchingly, it looks as if they will at least restore the mobility component of the disability living allowance. This may resemble another Lib Dem-friendly coalition U-turn, but there's a strong chance it's based on a wonk's canny calculation that people will then have no excuse not to travel to their appointment to be found “fit to work”.  Back

[3]The thinking behind this is that chemo affects people differently. While that is true, I'm not sure it has been seriously suggested that the number of people so unaffected that they could also hold down a job is high enough to warrant any blanket “work assessment”. Plus, it's not as if right now there's any bar to the lucky few who feel well enough to be able to contemplate working.  Back

[4] Until he's made an earl.  Back

[5] Extra points go to Jeremy Clarkson for his recent polemic about selfish suicides who throw themselves in front of trains: “Get the train moving as soon as possible and let foxy woxy and the birds nibble away at the smaller, gooey parts that are far away and hard to find.” At last someone has struck a blow against our ruthless oppressors: families of suicide victims! Now that's talking truth to power! He's the people's prince! I hope he does more of this stuff on his new DVD!  Back


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2011 11:42 am (UTC)
What is there to say? Seriously, what the fuck is there to say?

I made the mistake of watching Frozen Planet and then Storyville's "Inside Job" last night, the first of which made me cry for good reasons, the second of which I actually had to pause, halfway through, so I could shout swear words at the screen for a few minutes. These people are criminally insane. They are INSANE. And they simply have to be got rid of.
Dec. 8th, 2011 12:31 pm (UTC)
"When your position can't be caricatured by exaggeration, something has gone horribly wrong."

Oh God. It's just too depressing for any words.
Dec. 8th, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)
But you're opposing the worst of right wing attitudes against the noblest of the most deserving, and the thrust of your argument is that because people *can* have terminal illnesses it is never appropriate to assess people who are ill for ability to work, and anyone suggesting that assessment may be worthwhile is automatically attacking the terminally ill and dragging them into kangaroo assessment courts. I doubt that's the proposal frankly, it would be normal for the GP or medical consultant to be the first point of call.

That's a reductionist and emotive straw man argument. And it demonstrates a growing tendency on the left since New Labour days where this sort of emotional overexpansiveness is being used in soundbites to build a constituency of received wisdom wherein the right is explained as being engaged in a relentless attack on the disadvantaged and everyone nods sagely and adds an #eviltories hashtag. It's like the Clarkson furore last week. A stupid comment overshadows the whole issue because it's easy to attack indignantly. Insults and poorly judged jokes have been rebranded "abuse". Tear gas is "chemical warfare against protest". And so on.

I'm willing to bet that most Tories are not evil. Some of them are stupid, some of them are misguided, and a great many of them have some interesting ideas which in a more liberal age would have been discussed on merit. In other words, the right is precisely of the same composition as the left.

The idea being expounded here, which to my ears has the unreconstructed sniff of the Daily Mail, is that there is an unstated (but assumed large) proportion of those claiming various benefits who could find work but they prefer to take the free cash. From the left, we're told that bankers don't pay tax and if they did everything would be wonderful. It is a MIRROR IMAGE. Neither statement is entirely false, though solving the problem is not going to bring us in isolation to a state of bliss, but both are assertions which can be examined and tested and valued.

In other words, on both sides, people believe this shit they're told, and the way to get to the truth is not to tell one side they're evil or stupid, it's to take the arguments and work through them on a factual basis. You'll find very few situations where it's as clear cut as you thought going in.

You suspect that if anyone had an attention span that lasted more than 140 characters these days, and was prepared to discuss difficult questions instead of losing their temper and shouting the other side down, there'd be a careful analysis of the government discussion document and a point by point rebuttal of the numbers - oddly enough I did this yesterday on the subject of mortgage interest benefit, and usually when you go to the source document you find a careful explanation of why certain routes were chosen over others in the proposal on the basis of fairness. You can argue with such assertions, but what most people seem to do is pick up the headline and shout about what they think was said, rather than what is actually said.

And what we get here is a reference to a Guardian article (the Guardian is increasingly screechy these days, buoyed I suspect by the rather amusing implosion of the Murdoch empire) and a few comments around the evil of being a Tory with some fascinating personal anecdotes around a straw man argument. Then if we accept that being Tory is evil, we proceed briskly ad hominem to the removal of any suggestion made by a Tory on the basis that it was made by a Tory and therefore must be of evil intent.

And meanwhile the Daily Mail readers still read reports that a woman on incapacity benefit was filmed on a trampoline and inflate it into their entire world view of those on benefits, and the left see a report of a banker getting a large bonus and inflating that into a view that the establishment are stealing money from them and avoiding tax (my favourite fact: banks pay over 11% of the entire UK tax take, £58B, which is about twice the state contribution to public service pensions over and above employer and employee contributions, if the evil bankers did all just leave we'd all be much better off, yes sir).

Dec. 8th, 2011 02:22 pm (UTC)
It wouldn’t pay to underestimate the baleful influence of the Daily Mail on current policy, not just its current, day-to-day effect (although it does appear to have briefed the Home Office on the deportation of cats) but its long, slow, cumulative impact on attitudes that have hit the ground running.

The reason my distrust of the Conservative party has crystallised into what it is now is not simply because they’re the Blue Team and I march under some other banner, but because of, specifically, what they’ve been champing at the bit to do to welfare. You’re right to say that, just like any other party, the Tories are a coalition of sorts between moderates, extremists and outright nutters, but of course it’s not the moderates who make it their mission to, for example, lay into welfare.

I have spoken to the person who authored a paper for the Conservatives several years ago on reducing funding for public services without actually cutting the services provided. In private, just as in public, both Iain Duncan Smith and Cameron seemed very committed to this idea, according to this person, who was therefore stunned when they took power and began doing the precise opposite of everything they had spent several years espousing. You may object that this is merely anecdotal, but nonetheless it formed another building block in my solid conviction that even the more liberal wing of the party is rather enjoying the opportunities afforded it by current economic chaos.

Lord Freud, similarly, makes out in Committee that he is merely playing a dispassionate numbers game, but (aptly, given his lineage) his language betrays him: the grudging, patrician note sounded by passing comments like “We are injecting £4 billion into the pockets of the poorest people” is indicative. Again, circumstantial, but still revealing.

The key place to do exactly what you describe and crunch the government’s numbers to a fine powder is of course Parliament—that’s what Committee stage is for—but, too often, a place so hamstrung by the government’s control over business will be lucky if it gets to raise these questions at all, let alone press them. The Lords might kick up a fuss, which indeed they are over welfare reform, but the government aren’t obliged to really pay any attention.

I acknowledge what you are saying about some of the ideas emerging from the more liberal wing of the coalition—indeed, the digital government services that launched today and Cameron’s NHS research move last week seem as if they would be positive moves from a government of any stripe (Ben Goldacre described them as being “good on nerd issues”)—but I’m unconvinced that they provide enough of a counterweight to the rampaging right for my fears to be allayed or my anger to abate.

I also take your point about dismissing out of hand the contribution of big banks, but:
(1) It’s also true that the only people whose reckless behaviour pre-crash was at all penalised were those who worked for Lehman because it was allowed to implode (and even most of them have probably found even better remunerated positions since), and that is a scandal that grows with time, rather than diminishes.

(2) Percentages can tell their own story. The fact that the banks contribute such a large percentage is in part because other industries currently don’t, which needs tackling as much as banks need reassuring.
I do, however, note your phrase “the noblest of the most deserving”, which seems very coalition-flavoured. If you cheat, you are obviously not deserving; otherwise, I hold that by definition, as a citizen, you deserve help and support as a matter of course. A significant portion of the coalition, in tune with many of those who own our media, would have us think otherwise.

EDIT: Also, if there are persuasive examples which show that my IV-drip illustration does not reflect the prevailing mood music of this government, I'm genuinely keen to know about them.

Edited at 2011-12-08 02:53 pm (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
I think it's worth reflecting on comedian Francesca Martinez' comment that we are all likely to be 'not yet disabled' (unless we die young).
Dec. 9th, 2011 09:55 am (UTC)
Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.

Never ascribe to incompetence, that which can be explained by greed.

Every interview and assesment carried out by ATOS is accompanied by a substantial fee.

Peehaps we should follow the careers of the ministers and the officials who are involved in these decisions; purely, of course, so that we can congratulate them at a later date on demonstrating the transformation of public service into entrepreneurial success by proving their worth as non-executive directors and consultants to our private sector partners in the exciting world of mixed-provider public services.

Meanwhile, I am delighted to see that your blog is attracting anonymous shills from free-market thinktanks and the 'online image management' consultancies attached to forward-looking PR departments. You may take this as a sign that your blog is widely-read and worrying to the authorities; I, of course, take it as an opportunity to point out to selected readers that I charge a reasonable rate for writing sophistry and repetitious drivel scraped from tedious PR material, without regard for truth, logic, or consistency; and that I do so slightly better, and less-obviously like a sockpuppet, than some.
Dec. 9th, 2011 10:28 am (UTC)
In the ATOS guidelines for their part in conducting the ESA assessment, a terminal illness (which is the only case in which they take the step that---as your anonymous correspondent puts it---"would be normal" of going to your medical consultants) is a progressive illness with a life-expectancy of under 6 months.

So redefining to a limit of 12 months would be a step in the right direction.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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