It’s a funny old thing, growing up in a theocracy. Maybe not funny so much as – a little bit shit.
Of course, like most things, it depends what side you’re on and how it all turns out. It’s probably more accurate for me to say that it’s a funny old thing to look back on having grown up in a family that was in virulent opposition to a prevailing, if mild, theocracy.
I was born in Ireland the year before we legalised contraception, which was the first time politicians took a political step in opposition to the bishops. Or, to put it another way, the year before Iran became a significantly less mild theocracy. The longer I live, the more firmly I find myself calibrating my values against those I grew up with. Because, you know, the world is ON FIRE and so I need to check a compass and reorient myself occasionally.
These are the conclusions: I will fight for the separation of church and state, for freedom from (opposed to ‘of’) religion, for logic and reason and science, for the right of free expression, for women’s rights, LGBT rights, the right to dissent; all of those rights that religions, when riding a power high, tend to tapdance over. This is what I am made of. This is what a mild theocracy made me.
This is what I am willing to concede, having grown old and comfortable and soft and secure: religions, when deprived of power and watched carefully – as you might a small spider in the corner of a room – are a source of comfort through the trials of this bloody life and the problematic issue of mortality, and can provide a positive impetus towards some kind of social conscience.
But I grew up experiencing just the faintest aroma of what religion – religious autocratic power – will take when it has the opportunity. My spidey sense is, I like to imagine, finely honed, buzzing infallibly when a religiously motivated figure appears on the horizon. George W Bush. Ruth Kelly. Anne Widecombe. Nadine Dories.
The left – my left, the happy echo chamber of my beloved liberal metropolitan elite – joins me in my suspicion. I, more-elitist-than-thou, sift through their disapproval and judge it in turn. Are they picking on conservatives? Are they picking on women? Are their anti-theocratic credentials as pure as mine?
We are idiots.
I live in a society afraid to publish religious cartoons. I live in a society afraid to criticize deeply, deeply conservative religious structures, their impact on children, on women, on culture. I live in a society of self-imposed blasphemy laws. I live in a society where I’m reluctant to repost my favourite weekly cartoon (that would be the terrible twosome, Jesus and Mo) from my Facebook account, and in which its genius author remains anonymous for very practical reasons. No one else posts it on Facebook either, although it has a lot of fans amongst my friends. I live in a society where we are horribly reluctant to contemplate our reasons for this.
In 2006, I made mealy-mouthed excuses when it came to the Danish cartoons, and for the refusals to reprint them. Not excusing violence, no no. But should they really have been commissioned? Was publication not an act of provocation? I said that. I thought it. I followed down a logical path from a to b to c of what I believed were my values, until I found myself in a place so far removed from them that it felt – wrong. Upside down.
I was eleven when Salman Rushdie was given a death sentence for writing a book. My moral compass was still pretty clear. I liked books, and the whole story had the sound of Bad Nuns. This was wrong. Demands to withdraw the book were wrong. Pressure not to read or sell it were surely wrong. Burning the book and threatening to kill the writer? That was a no brainer to an eleven year old.
And yet at twenty eight my position on The Cartoons was ambivalent. No, that’s an equivocation. Ambivalent suggests a carefully weighed set of vectors that have been sorted through and found to be in balance. The truth was: there are few things more precious to me than satire and literature and culture. There are few things I feel greater fundamental distrust for than religious power. And yet.
The echo chamber is powerful. We form our views, look around, check we’re where we’re supposed to be. Form more views on the next event. Look around. Check we’re still on the right path. See the people we know around us, in agreement. More importantly, check out those who disagree. It’s all good. The Actual Fascists are on the other side. Politicians I currently disagree with are on the other side. Marin Amis, well he’s a good writer but fundamentally sociopathic and bloody dreadful on women. I am in disagreement with these people, therefore I’m in the right place.
One day you look down. You look up. You check the compass and realise you travelled 180 degrees and are supporting, in a reluctant, feels-wrong-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach, everything you hate against everything you love.
And you can’t really find any excuses or reasons, other than that it was easy. There was a sign, indicating natural direction of travel, and it turned out to be a slide. And you can never again hold in such utter contempt people going through the real life experience of double think. You think about it in the second person because it’s weird.
Here’s what it’s like on the other side: it is impossible not to spot the ability of British society to hold in casual contempt some religions, while shying away with remarkable precision from others. Mostly this is irritating, because when I change my mind, I am ready for everyone else to catch up quickly. Sometimes it comforts me – I’m not on my own when it comes to That One Time I Was Wrong.
It’s natural to feel most at ease with critiquing what on some level feels like ‘your own’ whether or not that thing was ever personally yours. I will insult my family, but you may not. I’ll buy that. But I won’t buy it entirely. That would leave the naturally-anti-theocratically-inclined of the UK left comfortable with critiquing Anglicanism, which is scarcely worth the trouble of critiquing, although people find the energy for an opinion on women bishops. It shouldn’t so easily cover condemnation of the pope. By people who can summon contrarian empathy for the IRA and somehow know Irish rebel songs that make me leave a room. Whose every political instinct condemns the British empire and its legacy, and supports the countries and cultures left behind by it. But the pope is a ****. Because AIDS, and Africa, and condoms. Other things too. I agree with them entirely. I agree with them beat for beat. But a disconnect still lingers.
Critique of school systems in the UK where religious doctrine dominates or where children are taught religion to the detriment of core subjects seems to have become the preserve of the right, with some honourable exceptions. Saying ‘it sounds a lot like fascism if a paper is too afraid to publish a cartoon’ seems to be the preserve of the right. We will find our way back to a robust opposition to religion in schools, but only because the Conservative government seems intently committed the virtue of Christian schools, few of which will replace most of the curriculum with theology. We will find our way back to a defense of the enlightenment and education over evangelism – the secular salvation of children, if you will – but it’s going to feel paltry and late.
It cuts deep. It cuts deep because it took me on a journey I regret having gone on, a tidal drag from a set of principles I still believe in and that I still believe we need if we are to get through the years ahead. (The world is ON FIRE, people.) It cuts because I have some small inkling of what it is to be the rebel underdog family in the middle of a culturally religious majority. Because it lingers, somewhere, the resentment, the chip-on-shoulder. It smolders away and I still count every win and obsess about losses. I have always maintained a low-level anxiety about how easily our post-enlightenment, post-civil-rights (not-quite-there-yet-but-we’ll-get-there) consensus could be lost, even in this world that has seemed to glide closer and closer to my values. I have never thought of it as certain; post civil rights gains have always felt fragile and historically unlikely.
I can’t imagine how that chip would have stacked up had the virtuous voices with which I largely agreed on most things sung from the hymnbook of how important it was to respect that religious majority around me and mine rather than our small voices of dissent. A raging bonfire of spitting fury, is my best guess.
These days they get named as hate figures by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. And the left – my left – does not rise with a mighty roar and mock the SPLC into a retraction. ‘You mixed up the oppressors and the resistance!’ shouted far too few people.
Here is what I know.
My people, my incompatible antagonistic Venn diagram of impossible optimism crossed with contrarianism, was always capable of holding the following doublethink safely in our heads: to condemn the pope and the orthodox theology of Catholicism was not to condemn or oppress practising, believing Catholics. It would take a very special idiot to confuse these things. Those who decried the Catholic position on condom use in Africa were not seeking to oppress or condoning the oppression of Catholics in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Italy or France. This did not have to be stated or argued. It was too obvious to mention.
If we are right when we feel a visceral level of contempt for a religious institution whose obsession with theological purity refused to falter in the face of a continent ravaged by AIDS, which opposes LGBT rights, which would make a woman carry a dying child to term. Then – why?
You know the question.
Do I dare disturb the universe, do I dare to eat a peach.
Do you dare to post a cartoon?
(Or: how to start a sentence without pissing everyone off)
Here’s a drinking game. You may already have found yourself playing it from time to time.
[Spoilers: you will get drunk.]
The game is a simple one: when David Cameron says, ‘It is right that’ you have a drink. You might already feel the urge to take to drink whenever David Cameron says ‘It is right that.’ It has become something of a linguistic tick for our prime minister, sprinkled across his utterances in the way other people use actually, basically, literally, or apparently, after years of mockery over the former, figuratively. He uses it three times in this speech. It often prefixes something of dubious rectitude, whether factual or moral.
In general, people use these little words to couch the words that follow, to shield themselves from the baldness of a simply uttered statement. And so ‘We will address immigration’ becomes ‘It is right that we address immigration.’ Another person might try ‘I think we should address immigration.’ And yet another: ‘I feel we need to address immigration.’
All of these are used, by all sorts of people, in politics, in journalism, in pubs, in workplaces. But our dedicated followers of Westminster fashion do seem peculiarly addicted to the ‘it is right’ formula, and I worry about it spreading to the rest of society. I’m not sure my liver will cope.
Why does it annoy me so? Because these phrases do carry different connotations, and do affect the way in which argument, dissent, disagreement and debate is conducted.
It is right that my statement carries an unexamined moral certainty, deriving authority from on high. What need I for facts, when I can channel infallibility? Don’t ask where I read about this, or how I came up with this idea, the statistics which informed it or the people I have spoken to. Such measures pale beside the simple omnipotence of my statement. The sun rises, the sun sets. A child of three could tell you this. I am Q. (From Star Trek, not James Bond.)
Thusly are my anti-clerical hackles raised when Mr Cameron tells me what is right. He is not Q.
I feel that my view is an absolute and measurable fact, drawing certainty from the perfection of my personal existence. Good luck arguing with my feelings; there is absolutely no way you can win. You could try to feel your view at me, and you could even feel it more strongly, but my feelings would have greater power, because they are mine. This could end in tears. My tears will only prove I was right all along.
I think that I draw upon the Enlightenment when attempting to engage in this conversation. Here are some facts. Here are the conclusions I have drawn from them. Here are some footnotes. Here’s a link to the sodding peer review. WHY WON’T ANYONE TALK TO ME?!
So for those getting paid for expressing an opinion, or for those attempting to begin a meaningful debate, it would be helpful to start a few sentences with ‘I think.’
It would be even nicer if they did.
Phillip Pullman has been talking about original the very modern sin of illegal downloading, which he called ‘moral squalor.’ This made me cross. Why? Because I was about twenty-five years of age before I regularly bought brand new books and contributed to the coffers of their authors. But I read a lot before I was twenty five. I can’t begin to imagine who I might be today had I not read a lot, in the old days of the non-virtual books and the various ways one could obtain them without paying full price. And increasingly, I have no idea how a young and impoverished me of the future will get to read so much and remain on the right side of the law.
I’ll give you a relatively recent example of what I’m talking about. Right now I am counting down the three weeks ‘til Diane Setterfield’s second novel. (October 10th, people.) This is because a former housemate once bought The Thirteenth Tale, and left it on our kitchen table. Since I had absolutely no faith whatsoever in this housemate’s literary taste I ignored the eulogies and sneered at the book, until the Saturday afternoon I picked it up and read the first page. I picked it up at about three o’ clock. I finished it twelve hours later, having missed a friend’s birthday. The Thirteenth Tale is really very good.
But you may note that I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it, which I think might be the non-virtual predecessor of ‘illegally downloading.’ But the Thirteenth Tale is the sort of book you want to read again, and so two winters’ later I bought it. Being the sort of book you also advocate on behalf of, I then lent it to a friend. And then bought another copy for myself. And then lent that to a friend. I doubt I currently own a copy of the Thirteenth Tale, but I’m quite sure I will buy another in my lifetime. And I will buy a shiny new full-price copy of Setterfield’s second novel when it comes out in three weeks.
A lovely story, everyone will agree. Finding an unexpected book in the depth of winter and falling in love with it and passing it on, like some kind of irritating prophet who bashes everyone over the head with other people’s holy books.
Suppose for a moment I had downloaded The Thirteenth Tale.
Aha, you say. Wait! I see the flaw in this slippery-slope-property-is-theft fallacy. In the real world, you subsequently bought new copies of the book when you gave one away! For every copy that was read, a new copy was bought.
Well, here’s the thing. I can’t remember whether those copies were new or second hand. I really can’t. I’ve been buying second hand books since I was about six. They were the only books I could afford, poor little Dickensian child that I was. Jumble sales and second hand books shops; graduating to Amazon in the digital age. This is not illegal. But it is much cheaper than a new book, and it denies the author their cut. Second hand books and borrowed books: the bedrock of my education.
As a result, there are two things I dislike about e-books:
- There does not appear to be a mechanism to re-sell them when they are rubbish (therefore allowing someone else to buy them second hand)
- There appear to be arbitrary limitations on lending them to others when they are brilliant.
To ‘lend’ a kindle book that you have purchased, with your money, and of which you are therefore the owner, the following rules apply:
You can lend a Kindle book to another reader for up to 14 days. The borrower does not need to own a Kindle device and can read the book after downloading a free Kindle reading app.
Note: A book can only be loaned one time.
One friend in all the world may be trusted to borrow the book. It’s very Lord of the Rings. Which few people will read in 14 days, so there’s not much point in lending that particular favourite.
It’s enough to make you question whether you have really bought an e-book, or are merely leasing it. Of course, you’re paying roughly the same price as you would for an old-school hard copy. And when we bought hard copies, it was traditional to ‘own’ them once the money had exchanged hands.
It’s always fun to bring up the time that Amazon surreptitiously and remotely deleted all copies of Orwell’s 1984, as though their customers had never bought 1984 and as though Amazon were unfamiliar with either 1984 or irony, and so I shall: Amazon once surreptitiously and remotely deleted all copies of Orwell’s 1984.
So here’s the thing: I’m not advocating anyone breaks the law, but honest to sweet virtual Jesus lord and all the little e-books, the day they decided to sell us things that would not in fact be ours, did it not occur to them that people might laugh in their faces, flex their ingenuity, and find any way they could to screw them six ways to Sunday? It really should have occurred to someone. Because the only appropriate response to someone who asks you to ‘pay full price’ for something that they openly admit they do not intend to ‘sell you’ is the oh-so-modern ‘lol.’
Over the last few years, one quality has emerged above all others, when it comes to deciding to pay full price for a cultural artefact in order to support its creator. Whether I like the creator. It doesn’t mean they have to be ‘nice’ – I bloody hate ‘nice’. They might be interesting, or their cultural artefacts might be so compelling that I will ignore their crimes, their sins, their politics. There are lots of things to consider when hovering between the ‘buy new’ and ‘buy second hand’ or ‘don’t bother returning friend’s copy until they hunt you down with a weapon’ – the artist’s finances certainly come into play. I am more likely to financially support a band or an artist that I love when I think they might need the money.
And it turns out I’m a lot less likely to support those who whine about the moral squalor of reading while being poor.
I don’t usually do much in the way of book reviews in this blog. But I do frequently moan about the ongoing campaign by certain politicians to end satire by constantly doing things and passing laws that really should be reserved for satire, thus leaving no material for the simple satirist. Right now, for example, the Tories are planning to bring back National Service. Really. There’s a bill. And I’m too worn out to even be sarcastic. I’m just listening to ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ by the Kinks. And wishing someone would re-invent Spitting Image.
But this summer I read Julian Gough’s ‘Jude: Level 1.’ Now, I bought this book a year or so ago, on the basis of something I can’t remember. I then read the back of the book, was put off by the fact that the humour appeared to be based on the idea of a man with a penis for a nose, and dumped it in a pile of unread books to wait for a day when I might be in the mood for Pinocchio-related penis puns. Which it turned out I was this summer. No, I don’t remember why that was either.
In any case, I read about fifteen pages and laughed a lot, and then started to run about, waving the book vigorously in people’s faces, shrieking ‘OH MY GOD, HAVING TO LEARN IRISH HISTORY HAS FINALLY TURNED OUT TO BE WORTHWHILE!’ When this didn’t win any significant new readership, I sat them down and locked them in rooms and made them read the first fifteen pages until they agreed that it was magnificent. Then I took it away because I wanted to finish it. I’m going to quote far too much of it now:
“It was in this place…” he said, with a generous gesture which incorporated much of Tipperary, “… that Eamonn DeValera…”
Everybody removed their hats.
“… hid heroically from the Entire British Army…”
Everybody scowled and put their hats back on.
“… during the War of Independence. It was in this very boghole that Eamonn DeValera…”
Everybody removed their hats again.
“…had his Vision: A Vision of Irish Maidens dancing barefoot at the crossroads, and of Irish Manhood dying heroically while refusing to the last breath to buy English shoes…”
At the word English the crowd put their hats back on, though some took them off again when it turned out only to be Shoes. Others glared at them. They put the hats back on again.
“We in Tipperary have fought long and hard to get the Government to make Brussels pay for this fine Interpretive Centre and its fine Car-Park, and in Brünhilde DeValera we found the ideal Minister to fight our corner. It is therefore with great pleasure, with great pride, that I invite the great grand-daughter of Eamonn DeValera’s cousin… the Minister for Beef, Culture and the Islands… Brünhilde DeValera… to officially reopen… Dev’s Hole!”
The crowd roared and waved their hats in the air, though long experience ensured they kept a firm grip on the peak, for as all the hats were of the same design and entirely indistinguishable, the One from the Other, it was common practice at a Fianna Fáil hat-flinging rally for the less scrupulous farmers to loft an Old Hat, yet pick up a New.
Brünhilde DeValera took the microphone, tapped it, and cleared her throat.
“Spit on me, Brünhilde!” cried an excitable farmer down the front. The crowd surged forward, toppling and trampling the feeble-legged and bock-kneed, in expectation of Fiery Rhetoric. She began.
“Although it is European Money which has paid for this fine Interpretive Centre… Although it is European Money which has paid for this fine new eight-lane Motorway from Dublin and this Car Park, that has Tarmacadamed Toomevara in its Entirety… Although it is European Money which has paid for everything built West of Grafton Street in my Lifetime… And although we are grateful to Europe for its Largesse…”
She paused to draw a great Breath. The crowd were growing restless, not having a Bull’s Notion where she was going with all this, and distressed by the use of a foreign word.
“It is not for this I brought my Hat,” said the Dignitary next to me, and spat on the foot of the Dignitary beside him.
“Nonetheless,” said Brünhilde DeValera, “Grateful as we are to the Europeans…
…we should never forget…
Fifty thousand right hands began to drift, with a wonderful easy slowness, up towards the brims of fifty thousand Hats in anticipation of a Climax.
“…are a shower of Foreign Bastards who would Murder us in our Beds given Half a Chance!”
It can be read in full here, for no money whatsoever.
Having spent what is probably too much time thinking about it, Brunhilda deValera’s flamboyant speech is my second favourite comic scene of all time, ever. For the record, my favourite is Uncle Podger from Three Men in a Boat, so no one’s ever going to beat that.
It’s easy to mock the Ireland of Yore, with its funny ways and farmers. It’s probably going to be harder to satirise the tragic human cost of a bankrupt country that spent all its money on, well, what I can only describe as five years of the most boring conversations of my life. Five years of obsessive compulsive conversations about house prices and the price of house-tax and the price of things that go in houses and the price of things that go outside houses. For the non-house-buying participants in these encounters, it was a sort of death by a thousand conversations about houses. It was so boring that just the word ‘house’ took on a strange, Pavlovian resonance that still sometimes makes me want to buy a plane ticket to London, even if I am already in London.
I really wanted a satire about houses seven years ago. But I’m prepared to settle for one now. Which takes us up to ‘Crash! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love.‘
Jude paid £10 million for the very last, end-of-boom, Irish property. Which was a henhouse without a roof. From what I remember of the endlessly tedious national conversation of the time, that wasn’t a bad price for a henhouse without a roof. But the bad times have rolled round, he’s behind on his payments, and a number of important EU officials have decided Jude’s henhouse is a symbol of the entire European fiscal catastrofuck. They’re no longer building our interpretative centres with their money, oh no.
‘We ‘ave come to solve your problems,’ he said.
That was an immense relief. I had worried they might have come to cause me more.
But their solution, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s glanced at the news over the past three years turns out, in a nutshell, to be this:
If there’s one thing we have learned over the years in Europe, it’s that every problem can be solved by making it bigger.
Crash, on the other hand, is short wee thing, but it turned out that was all I needed. Faith in satire has been restored.
At least until I see the news again.
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.