George Galloway, in a moment of unusual imbecility, has been praising North Korea. Yes, I did think about word choice before writing that.
Lots of people have probably noticed that this has been another of those weeks where we all relive the eighties. The eighties were not fun. Everyone had to talk about Thatcherism and be afraid of dying in a nuclear holocaust. A background of recession and the Tories are not enough, it turns out, to fully immerse oneself in the reliving of the eighties. No, we needed to talk a lot about Thatcherism. And now we’re back to gentle contemplation of atomic annihilation. Hurrah, etc.
For those of us who grew up in the eighties and read mind-blowingly inappropriate children’s books*, the assumption that one day we would have to step out bravely into the world and take our place as one of the last survivors in a post-nuclear-nightmare was just a given. Like any good child of the eighties I was perfectly confident that the world would end in ill-defined and but fiery horror. [Actually it turns out that many sane, well-balanced people did not grow up reading post-apocalyptic teen books, and they went on to live happy, fulfilled, normal lives. But the rest of us concentrated on the dystopian and we came to inherit the cynical. You’ll be sorry when it really is the end of the world and we’re all well-informed and saying, ‘See, I told you so!’ as you head off to your well-stocked bomb shelter while we continue to jitter in front of the TV, spotting patterns in things that aren’t really there.]
So it is right, as David Cameron might say, that we turn our thoughts to that great eighties legacy this week and consider the possibility of North Korea testing missiles and talking about nuking things.
And apparently it’s right, in what passes for George Galloway’s brain, to condemn the shallow, imperialist western notion that North Korea is a threat.
No, don’t watch it. It’s very painful.
He praises the resistance of North Korea to globalisation, and the ‘cohesive, pristine, innocent culture’ of North Korea. I mean, these things are true – it is ‘cohesive’ in that it is without internal opposition and it is ‘pristine’ in that it removes its citizens from the corrupting influences of media, internet or dissent. And centrally-enforced ignorance is of course a kind of innocence.
I’m not entirely sure why I had even a moment’s surprise. I mean, it’s George Galloway. He was ‘saying something.’ Expectations are never what I’d call high. But I suppose I always wondered how one might define a state of ‘even George Galloway can jump the shark.’ And it turns out it’s praising North Korea.
In a general sort of way, I think that wildly hyperbolic hatred of public figures is unhelpful. I have found the Tea Party quite a salutary experience in this regard. Upon the cusp of expressing wildly hyperbolic hatred, I sometimes remind myself that this sounds like something the Tea Party might say, and, sometimes, this is enough to make me moderate my sentiments to something more policy-focussed instead. Wandering about sounding like the Tea Party does relatively little to advance the cause of world peace, universal prosperity or basic common sense. (I’m not saying this is easy. My habit and instinct is to denounce people as pointless fuckwits and then get merrily on with my day.)
But Margaret Thatcher is dead.
And I have decided to show respect to those who suffered under the Thatcher years by not, you know, using this occasion to lecture them on how their expression of feeling is wrong.
When you exist on the wrong side of a system, you live with that every day. It informs your identity, your understanding of politics and people, your reading of the world. It is not an easy way to live, nor one that comes without a cost. It takes energy. It leaves scars.
It takes a lot of energy to listen to lies about yourself and your family and the world in which you live. It takes a lot of energy to hold them in your head, beside the things you know are true, and to keep them both in their separate boxes. Or worse, to reconcile them and carry the doublethink around instead. That is heavier.
This year Ireland looked at the past and named it, in a speech I never, ever thought I would hear. I grew up in an Ireland that made no sense, a republic enthralled by its own sense of freedom and in thrall to the bishops. Keeping such nonsense in your head hurts your head. I really never thought anyone would name the past and its shame, call it for what it was. The apology made by Enda Kenny in February of this year, while appropriate, and deeply important to those it was directed at, was not relevant to all of us. But to have the ‘difficult’ ‘contentious’ divisive’ past named for what it was is important for all who lived in it, grew up in in it, watched it. It correctly named an Ireland that was not filled with a thousand welcomes but which was ‘judgemental, intolerant, petty and prim.’ It described the reality of a republic whose ‘moral subservience that gave us the social mores the required and exclusive ‘values’ of the time, that welcomed the compliant, obedient and lucky ‘US’ and banished the more problematic, spirited or unlucky ‘THEM.’’
Having been taught a lot of glorious Irish history when I was growing up, that speech is, by some measure, my favourite part of Irish history.
It is important to name things.
It is undoubtedly difficult for some people this week – people who liked her or supported her or agreed with her or sympathised with her or came to retrospectively admire Thatcher’s strength – to listen to the hatred and venom expressed by a significant part of the country.
But it is also hard to listen to public eulogies about someone who oppressed you and hurt you and hurt your family and destroyed your community and the world you grew up in. It is hard to watch a country that cannot afford to repay illegally withheld welfare payments find the money to publicly honour her. It is hard to listen to members of her cabinet rejoice in her legacy and confirm what we knew – that the country has moved, permanently, to the right. It is hard, during a time of austerity and practical hardship to listen to people celebrate the end of the unions. It’s hard to see that only Ken Livingston speaks anything but praise for her legacy (political legacy, not personal) and that no other politician feels it appropriate to do so.
It’s hard to feel that thirty years later, it might still be the 1980s.
Words and verbal abuse of the dead will do nothing to change this, but for plenty of people it’s the only appropriate and available response. If this grates, and offends your morality, then it might be worth remembering two things:
1. Even if Margaret Thatcher is dead, verbs are still relevant (‘speaking’ is not the same as ‘throwing things’.)
2. You could choose to show respect to those who suffered under the Thatcher years, by not, you know, using this occasion to lecture them on how their expression of feeling is wrong.
Or we can all spend the next week glorying in the fact that there’s no such thing as society and yelling abuse at each other instead. Whatever seems most appropriate.
For a while now, it has felt as though ‘slashing benefits’ is a founding principle of the Tories. They have made lots of speeches about it. It’s something of flagship policy, in the sense that they hoist it up whenever a storm threatens, and they trust that the resulting media frenzy will distract people from the fact that they are drowning. You might come to believe, through sheer repetition of the message, that slashing benefits is important to this government.
They’re going to slash benefits because there is no money. They’re going to slash benefits because benefits trap people in a culture of dependency. They’re going to slash benefits because benefits are unfair to Alarm Clock Britain. Because of all the people coming over here and taking all our benefits. Because there’s still no money. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In any case, they’re definitely going to slash benefits.
This week it emerged, through the unearthing of evidence, that the DWP has in fact been slashing benefits. Leaked emails suggest that staff at job centres are instructed to impose sanctions on jobseekers. In fact, the evidence suggests there are targets for how many jobseekers should be sanctioned, and that jobcentre staff may themselves be sanctioned if they fail to, well, slash enough benefits.
So imagine my surprise when the government denied this! Denied that the DWP is carrying out government policy! Denied it strongly, as though such an accusation was unreasonable and bordering on the libellous. Their wounded cries could be heard for miles: How can you accuse us of carrying out the thing we said we would do?
The Work and Pensions Secretary reacted to the news that the DWP are carrying out the stated goals of the government as follows:
“There are no targets, there will be no targets and anybody caught imposing a target will themselves be dealt with.”
And yet this accidental carrying out of government policy would seem to have been going on for at least two years.
So how to reconcile the stated goals of the government with its horrified reaction to discovering that its stated goals are being carried out? Well, there would seem to be a few possible explanations.
The impulse to deny that they are doing the thing that they said they would do could be attributable to simple habit. What do you mean, of course we didn’t do it. Oh, you have evidence. Well, whatever you have that you think shows we’re doing the thing we said we’d do doesn’t prove we’re doing the thing we said we’d do.
After all, this is just another episode of The Thick of It, albeit one from which we can’t escape. They didn’t listen to the question and haven’t yet realised that they’ve spent the week heartily denying the successful implementation of their own policy.
The government fears that carrying out the thing they said they’d do might not yet be legal. This seems unlikely, due to the exciting new option of retrospectively changing the law so that whatever you’re doing was always legal. QED.
3. Public opinion is complex
The government is concerned that its rhetoric may be interpreted differently to the reality of carrying out the goals implied by the rhetoric. This is little more complicated, and may imply that there is hope for the country. The rhetoric about welfare focuses on a stooge character, a stock figure that almost everyone can easily locate if they concentrate. Close your eyes. Imagine a benefit scrounger. They’re eating a deep-friend baby, aren’t they? And smoking something illegal and immoral and expensive? And watching TEN flat screen TVs at the same time, via new google glasses that you can’t afford, developed specifically to allow them to watch ten flat screen TVs simultaneously. Do you want your taxes to pay for this? Think of the children. Think of the deep-fried babies. Think of what you could do with ten flat screen TVs. IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT? If this is not what you want, then you agree that benefits must be reformed.
This is how the current national conversation about the welfare state tends to go.
Of course there is an alternative version of the conversation, which might conceivably happen if we discussed the sanctions targets being implemented.
Imagine a person you know. Close your eyes. It’s your dad, maybe. Or your mum. They’ve worked all their lives. They’ve paid their taxes, paid into the system. They got caught in one of the umpteen rounds of redundancies that for many people are now a bi-annual tradition. That was two years ago. They were good at their job, but their CV is not filled with transferable skills and their confidence is at a life time low. They’re seven years off retirement. They do apply for jobs, but it’s really fucking hard. There aren’t many jobs. They’ve applied for jobs in shops stacking shelves in shops too, before you ask.
But they’re claiming benefits in Walthamstow, and Walthamstow needs to pulls its socks up, because Walthamstow is 95th in the league table of jobcentres applying sanctions. That’s not good enough. Walthamstow needs to apply more sanctions.
Does that mean they’re next?
I can’t work out why the government has so stringently denied carrying out its own policies. Maybe time will tell. Maybe no one will notice. Maybe at some point over the next few years, when we have expanded the rhetoric of a punishable ‘them’ to include an awful lot more of ‘us’, the government will admit that they’ve been doing what they said they’d do all along.
Debate and discussion about ‘Workfare’ have always tended towards the Orwellian. The DWP and the government defended it, of course. Workfare was a gift, they would explain to one camera, offering skills and experience to those in most need of them. Turning to the next camera, they would confirm that it was a most appropriate punishment for the unwilling. For those scrounging little wastrels who won’t go out and get a job in the middle of a recession, damn their hides.
To camera one, the DWP and the Tories would explain that ‘mandatory’ and ‘benefits sanctions’ were the lies of the left. To camera two, they would just wink.
It created difficulties when it came to conducting a rational or rigorous discussion about the workfare program. The left was not especially helpful in its arguments when it put forward spokespeople who explained that, well, it’s evil because everyone has a right to be happy in their jobs.
Everyone doing work in this country has a right to a minimum wage. That might have been a better place to start.
In February, the Court of Appeal ruled that the legality of the scheme was flawed. This ruling centred around what information the DWP had supplied or failed to supply to claimants about the scheme and the sanctions they would suffer if they did not comply with the scheme. This was deeply unsurprising given the truck-ton of bollocks and doublespeak uttered publicly on the subject by those supposed to be running it.
Iain Duncan Smith was deeply concerned by the Court of Appeal’s judgement, not at the extent of his department’s monumental cock up, nor at the inaccuracy of information given to people, nor at the utterly unnecessary difficulties his department had put people through by attempting to impose an illegal expectation upon them and removing their benefits when they did not comply with the illegal measures. He was worried about the cost of compensating these people for the benefits his department had docked.
Compensation is a nice, Orwellian choice of word. Compensation is supposed to atone for something bad that happened to you. In this case, what the DWP should be liable for is the benefits they stopped. They should ‘pay back’ this money because it appears that they were not acting legally when they ‘withheld it’. ‘I forgot to pay rent last month. Don’ t worry, I will compensate you, by, er, paying it now.’ Oh, the grateful thanks we would expect for such a generous act of compensation.
The DWP go one better. They call it ‘a windfall‘. Paying back the benefits that they illegally withheld would constitute, in their minds, a windfall.
In any case, although many spokespeople had claimed that no one was being denied benefits due to Workfare, it turns out that it will cost the beleaguered tax-payer £130 million to pay back the money that was denied to those affected by the scheme. This is because over 150,000 people have had sanctions applied to their benefits, as laid out in the DWP’s Impact Assessment.
There’s only one solution of this. Change the law and apply it retrospectively. Here we have the emergency Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill:
“The impact upon individuals is that JSA claimants who have not complied with requirements under the ESE Regulations will not be repaid sanctioned benefits as they might expect following the judgment or may have a sanction imposed. The Bill effectively restores the status quo to a situation before the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments. Once the Bill is enacted, claimants who might have appealed against previous sanction decisions on the grounds upheld by the Judicial Review will be unable to do so. Sanctions imposed under the impugned legislation can continue and sanctions decisions currently stayed can be made in accordance with the original intent of the legislation. This is to ensure that the Government is not faced with the situation whereby jobseekers who failed to comply with their requirements and were sanctioned under the quashed ESE Regulations can receive an advantage over claimants who have complied with their requirements and is necessary to safeguard the economic interests of the state.”
Well when you put it like that, it seems such an obvious solution. And it’s only a tiny bit terrifying.
If my place of employment were to reduce my wages by one shiny pound an hour, can they apply this retrospectively? Could I spend the next year working for nothing as I repay the £35 a week I now owe for every week I have worked?
If at the same time my landlord raises my rent and applies this retrospectively? Then I’m really screwed.
But there could be an upside. If we could just have retrospective democracy, it might balance out this retrospective law-making.
Because, you see, the UK did something a few years ago and it didn’t turn out the way we intended. We ‘elected the Tories and the Lib Dems’ acting on the assumption that this would save money and prove less annoying and incompetent than Labour. But recently, it has come to our attention that there is quite a serious flaw in this. Because they’re fucking awful. So, as in any difficult situation of our own making, we are seeking to impose a magical-thinking solution which will be retroactively binding. We have decided that we did NOT elect the bastards. Therefore they are not in power. And nothing they did during their time in power counts.
I’m not saying this makes sense, but then sense is such an old fashioned concept. Like the idea that ‘a job’ carries ‘a wage’. Or the belief that we are not in fact living in 1984. So repeat after me:
Workfare was always legal.
The Tories were never in power.
We were always at war with Eurasia.
The US has begun the sensible precautionary measure of arming teachers. What could possibly go wrong? It’s like the Simpsons episode where they raise much needed funds by renting out jail cells at the back of classrooms. I probably shouldn’t give Michael Gove ideas.
New pope elected, declared to be very humble, when not comparing gay marriage to ‘a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God’. World stands amazed and spellbound at notion of a powerful person reputedly using public transport and cooking his own food. Well, I suppose it makes a change from some beloved leaders.
Holding up a sign saying something along the lines of ‘Piss off, you little toerag’ should not be illegal, says the European Court of Human Rights. But only because the esteemed leader at whom it was directed said it first. I think this means we can have signs that call Gordon Brown a bigot, or tell David Cameron to ’calm down, dear.’ The limitations of satire shall indeed be set by our masters.
Riding a bike in the UK? Currently possibly illegal, although I suppose we’re waiting for the ECRH ruling on that one too. Or for footage of Boris Johnson riding his bike in an annoying manner during the Olympics.
An interesting piece about a woman’s response to being sexually assaulted on a crowded London tube gave rise to, well the bottom half of the internet. The bottom half of the internet raised a number of very logical and sensible questions. The bottom half of the internet wanted to know how on earth a woman could stand in the middle of a crowded tube and be assaulted. How could she not say anything? What person in their right mind would just stand there and endure something like a man masturbating against them in public? What is wrong with society? And also, won’t somebody please think of the children?
Here’s the thing- you learn it slowly. It starts when you’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Ask ten women you know. Ask them if they remember their first time. Maybe it was a compliment about what she was wearing and she felt comfortable with it and it improved her day. Maybe it was a leer from a moron who bent over to look down her top. Maybe it was a few people in a car who hit the horn as they drove past, leaving her confused, and then embarrassed. Did I know those people? It must have been someone I know because why else would they hit the horn as they drove past me.
Maybe it was hey, darling. Maybe it was cheer up, love. Maybe it was niiiice.
Who could possible feel aggrieved about hey, darling? That’s the hallmark of the insane feminazi. And anyone who could summon outrage over cheer up, love is heading right down the path of irredeemable misanthropy and should just be ignored. These are compliments, or at least some of them are. Why make a big deal? Why are you criminalising and stigmatising basic human interaction? Is it a crime to speak to a woman? What is wrong with feminism? Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Maybe it wasn’t disguised as a compliment though. Maybe it was I want to fuck you; maybe it was fat cunt.
These are regrettable. These are the price we pay for living in a society made up of all sorts of people. But they are completely different to an objectively bad thing. That’s when someone physically assaults you. That’s when some stands pressed against you on a crowded tube and presses their dick against you and masturbates on you. Come on, people, if something objectively bad was happening to you then you’d say something. Right? Assault is not the same as subjectively experienced ‘harassment’.
While you’re asking ten women you know for their personal history of street harassment, or unsolicited interaction with strangers, or the little foibles of gendered interaction in public spaces, ask whether they have ever experienced the angry escalation of such an event.
It goes something like this:
Hey, darling, like the [insert approved item of clothing or body part]
The subject of approval ignores and continues to walk.
Hey! You! I know you can fucking hear me. Bitch!
The subject of approval walks faster, pursued by a hail of abuse. She is trying to decide whether the embarrassment or the fear is worse. That will be decided by how many people are around, how well she knows the neighbourhood, whether anyone is likely to come to her help should things escalate further. It will depend on what her former admirer (after all, it did start off with a compliment) is now saying, how unpleasant or personal the abuse becomes, whether it happens to find a sore spot, something she’d always hoped would not be roared at her across a street.
There is no easy way to distinguish the tedious from the bad, or either from the really fucking ugly. You only ever know afterwards.
A man is standing beside you on the tube platform, and as the tube arrives he says something. It is a somewhat stark expression of sexual intent. You, buoyed on the confidence that comes with being in a crowd, make a facial gesture of unabashed revulsion. You would not normally do this. You are supposed to pretend you did not hear, keep your head down, walk quickly. He enters one carriage and you another. You think no more about it. It is after all, just the way of things. You get out to change at the next stop. So does he. He doubles back around, leans over to you. Says, I will fucking kill you. He spits these words in your face, then turns and storms away. You stand still, absorbing his fury. When you start to move again, you wonder if he means it. You wonder if he is waiting for you at a corner, outside the station. You wonder how angry he became while he brooded upon your rejection of a proposition only ever intended to demonstrate his need to assert power. You challenged that, just for a moment. How far might he go to re-assert that? This is what you wonder until you get home, and feel safe again.
Over time, you learn that these things are mostly designed to make you flinch, so you learn not to flinch.
You learn to ignore, to block out, to endure a baseline level of nonsense on the street and public transport. Ignore it all. That’s the only way. You smile briefly and walk quickly. You keep your head down and walk quickly. You wear headphones and walk quickly.
You have absorbed on a cellular level the safe and sensible way to get by within the established parameters of the world, and then one day, something bad happens. Something that the world agrees is objectively bad. And that’s when everyone asks, why didn’t you say anything?