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Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health, Education and Society at the University of Northampton
Over the past few weeks our political lexicon has been further developed. We have all learned a new word. The word in question is prorogation. Hands up who had heard of this term before recent events in parliament? I see very few hands up. What we all now know is that this is the term that defines the discontinuation of a session of a parliament or other legislative assembly without dissolving it. It means parliament’s sitting is suspended and it ends all current legislation under discussion. It is usual for this to happen every autumn. The current prorogation is for five weeks and includes a three-week period that would typically be recess anyway, during which the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences are held, but is nevertheless longer than usual. However, there are several highly irregular factors at play here. For prorogation to last more than a month is unprecedented in recent times. For example, since the 1980s prorogation has typically lasted less than a week. So, what is going on and why is this prorogation proving to be so contentious?
The heart of the matter is the issue that has dominated UK politics for the past three years, namely Brexit. Despite a vote to leave the European Union (EU) back in June 2016 we currently remain part of the EU with the deal negotiated under the previous prime minister Theresa May culminating in a withdrawal agreement that was soundly rejected by parliament on several occasions. This has set up tensions between the people and parliament. How do we enact the will of the people and honour the referendum result within a parliamentary democracy where there is no majority for any Leave deal on the table?
The new prime minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet are resolved to break the political impasse by leaving come what may “do or die” by October 31st, 2019. So, with the country rapidly approaching the deadline for leaving the EU, Parliament has been working to pass a law that would prevent the UK crashing out without a deal, regardless of the fact that Boris Johnson has promised to leave on that date. With no deal currently agreed and no law allowing a no deal exit the Government would be obliged to ask the EU for another extension. There are suggestions from some quarters that the Government might ignore any law requiring them to agree an extension with the EU. Given this situation some politicians have been dismayed that parliament will not be sitting while the situation remains unresolved. Hence the view that this prorogation is stifling parliamentary debate on the most crucial political issue in a generation.
The act of prorogation took place in the early hours of Tuesday September 10th with a ceremony involving a message from the Queen being read in the House of Lords and then Black Rod summoning MPs from the Commons. A list of all the bills passed by the parliament was read, followed by a speech on behalf of the Queen announcing what has been achieved by the government before MPs were sent home. Johnson intends for parliament to return on 14 October with a Queen’s speech, which he says will “bring forward an ambitious new legislative programme for MPs’ approval”. He will then almost immediately have to head to Europe for the vital EU council, which is the last chance for him to obtain a new Brexit deal or to ask for an extension of article 50.
The situation has been deemed a constitutional crisis by some and the fact that parliament is not sitting at this critical time is being seen by some as undemocratic, indeed unlawful. Indeed, the act of prorogation has been subject to judicial review for the past couple of weeks. Scottish appeal court judges declared Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament in the run-up to the October Brexit deadline unlawful. The three judges, chaired by Lord Carloway, Scotland’s most senior judge, overturned an earlier ruling that the courts did not have the power to interfere in the prime minister’s political decision to prorogue parliament. The key issue in question being whether the act was in breach of the constitution, as it was designed to stifle parliamentary debate and action on Brexit.
Regardless of the legal arguments which ended up being played out in three dramatic days this week in the Supreme Court the Brexit process and endgame has pointed up a range of tensions at the intersections of our constitution. The old political landscape is being swept away and being replaced by a much more complex set of political indicators. Left versus Right which had been making a comeback after years of centrist neo-liberalism has been replaced by Leave versus Remain which pervades across the old battle lines. Furthermore, other tensions are apparent as set out below.
- People versus Parliament (How to deliver the referendum result in a parliamentary democracy)
- Executive (Government) versus Parliament (especially when the executive has no overall voting majority)
- The Executive versus the Judiciary
- The position of the Judiciary as related to Constitution
- Politics versus The Law
- The roles and power relationships of the Executive, Parliament and the Judiciary as related to The Constitution.
What the overall Brexit process has created is a new socio-political landscape in the UK, with distinct differences in each of the four countries. It also illustrates how complex the nature of our constitution is given there is no written version and we depend on precedent and convention. The intersections are thrown into sharp relief by the current “crisis”.
Whilst all of this may be concerning as the old order shifts the really concerning question is whether the Executive will abide by the law. Given the outcomes of Parliament in terms of blocking “no deal” regardless of the Supreme Court Judgement on the legality of the prorogation. So, will we leave EU on October 31st? Utilising classic political phraseology, I’d say there is still all to play for, it’s too close to call and all bets are off.
Dr Stephen O’Brien
The governments contingency plan ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ has just been released. Notice I use the words released rather than published, the latter suggesting that the government provided the information to the public willingly. Of course, nothing is further from the truth, the government were forced by parliament to release the document and it does not make pretty reading.
On closer examination, there are few surprises. Food prices will go up as certain foods become less available. More importantly, the document recognises that vulnerable groups, those on low incomes “will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel”.
Protests and counter protest will take place across the country, inevitably this will lead to major disorder and will stretch an already overstretched police service to breaking point. The 20,000 extra police officers the government has promised are going to be needed. Some serious magic is required to produce these and quickly.
Lorries will be queuing up to cross the channel further stretching police and highways resources as they attempt to implement ‘Operation Brock’. The flow of goods will be severely disrupted and could have an impact on the supply of medicines and medical supplies. Once again, the vulnerable will be hit the hardest.
Some businesses will cease trading. You can bet that the people affected will not be those with money, only those without. Unemployment will go up as the economy takes a nose dive and fewer jobs become available.
There will be a growth in the black market. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the concept of supply and demand. Left unchecked, we could see the rise of organised crime far beyond that impacting the country presently. To exacerbate the problem, law enforcement data between the EU and the UK will be disrupted. Those 20,000 police officers are going to need to do double shifts.
Social care providers might fail. Never mind, its only the most vulnerable in society that are being looked after by them. If you can afford a good care home, it shouldn’t impact, if not, there are always police cells.
Just a few minor problems then with the advent of a ‘no deal Brexit’. Possibly exacerbated by natural phenomena such as flooding (of course that never happens) or a flu pandemic (I hope you’ve had your flu vaccine).
It doesn’t matter whether you voted to leave the European Union, or you voted to stay, you would have to be rather vacuous if you are not concerned by the contents of ‘Operation yellowhammer’.
But the most worrying aspect of all of this is that the government have been openly and vigorously pursuing a policy of leaving the EU with or without a deal. Let’s cut to the chase then, by pursuing its course of action, this government’s policy is to ruin the country and create mayhem. Would you really vote for that, I know I wouldn’t?
It seems remarkable doesn’t it that that we have reached the stage where the democratic institutions we hold dear are so openly crumbling before our eyes. Whilst many have been sceptical about how much you can trust a politician; rarely do we get the opportunity to gaze at the vitriolic evidence that embodies everything that we thought about politics in this country.
We have a prime minister who appears so simplistically single minded that he is blinded to the obvious and prepared to put the peace process in Ireland at risk, ruin the fragile economy, run rough shod over democracy and further damage his own party in the process.
Two concepts come to mind, the concept of leadership and ethics. There are several leadership typologies and I don’t propose to rehearse them here, save to say that there are good leaders and there are bad. The good ones we will follow anywhere, the bad, well they fall by the wayside eventually but usually not without having some calamitous impact. And as for ethics, I am minded to revert to the ‘Nolan principles’, the basis of ethical standards in public life. An examination of some of these principles against the backdrop of past and current political events reveals some interesting incongruities.
Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
When former prime minister David Cameron called for a referendum did he have the ‘national interest’ at heart or was it more to do with the divisions within the Tory party? What government would be so foolhardy to think that there would be no consequences from such a referendum? Where were the government advisors pointing to the very real possibility that peace on the Irish mainland would be threatened if the referendum went the wrong way? Did anyone in government really care; was healing the divisions in the Tory party more important?
When Boris Johnson decided to prorogue parliament, did he do so in the public interests or was it simply to ensure that the possibility of parliament having its say on Brexit would be seriously curtailed? For ministers to state this is simply ordinary business appears to be somewhat disingenuous given the circumstances and the extraordinary length of the break.
When ‘leave means leave’ does that mean that ‘a no deal’ Brexit is in the public interests?
Objectivity – Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
How can the prime minister state that he is taking decisions on merit using best evidence when he intends to shut down parliament, preventing any debate? Where is the impartiality when he is so single minded? How can he be viewed as impartial when he advocates bullying to get his own way, threatening to withhold the whip from any that vote against his wishes. Bullying is not leadership, threats of job losses will not galvanise people to the cause, it only alienates and divides.
Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
Just where is the scrutiny if parliament is prorogued? Just how accountable are ministers if they avoid confirming that they will abide by any legislation that prevents a ‘no-deal’ Brexit being passed?
Honesty – Holders of public office should be truthful.
Now here lies the crux of it all. Leaders are not leaders if the have a propensity to be somewhat economical with the actualité. Enter the red bus, just how truthful was it to suggest that we could save £350 million a week and use that to fund the NHS? Just how honest is it to say that proroguing parliament had nothing to do with shutting up opponents? Just how much can we believe this prime minister or any other leader when the lies are so obviously blatant?
Leadership – Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
It isn’t too difficult to conclude that a leader that does not display ethical behaviours is hardly likely to promote them elsewhere. Currently, as with so many institutions, this government lacks real leadership and it would appear that principles are no more than a wish list. Just who will hold government and the past and current leaders to account for Brexit, bullying and all the bull****?
The Office of National Statistics has admitted to some frailties in its data collection around migration. What a shock it must have been to discover that the manner in which it collected the data was somewhat flawed, so much so that they have now downgraded the data to ‘experimental’.
It might seem almost laughable that an organisation that prides itself in, and espouses data accuracy and has in the past criticised police recorded figures for being inaccurate (we know they are) has itself fallen foul of inaccuracies brought about by its own ill thought out data gathering attempts. The issue though is far greater than simple school boy errors, these figures have had a major impact on government policy for years around immigration with calls for greater control of our borders and the inevitable identification of the ‘other’.
The figures seem to be erroneous from somewhere between the mid-2000s and 2016, although it is unclear how accurate they are now. New analysis shows that European Union net migration was 16% higher in 2015-16 than first thought. Whilst the ONS admits that its estimation of net migration from non-EU countries is overestimated, it is not clear exactly by how much this might be.
Such a faux pas led to the story hitting the news; ‘EU migration to UK ‘underestimated’ by ONS’ (BBC, 2019) and ‘Office for National Statistics downgrades ‘not fully reliable’ official immigration data as experts claim figures have been ‘systematically under-estimating net migration from EU countries’ (Daily Mail, 2019).
So, there we are the ONS gets statistics wrong as well and the adjusted figures simply support what Brexiteers have been telling everyone all along. But why release the figures now? When were these errors identified? Surely if they have been inaccurate until 2016 then the mistake must have been found some short time after that. So why wait until the eleventh hour when ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is about to come to a calamitous conclusion? And why those headlines? Why not the headline ‘Big mistake: net migration from outside the EU vastly overestimated’?
I’m not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories but at times it is difficult to overlook the blindingly obvious. So called independent bodies may not be that independent, the puppet master pulls the strings and the puppets dance. Little value in headlining facts that do not support the right-wing rhetoric but great political value to be had in muddying the waters about the EU and open borders.
This discourse ignores the value of migration and simply plays on the fears of the populace, these are well rehearsed and now age-old arguments that I and many others have made*. The concern though is when ‘independent institutions’ subtly start to join in the furore and the moral compass starts to become distorted, subjugated to political ideals. I can’t help but wonder, what would Durkheim make of it?
* It is well worth watching Hollie McNish’s Mathematics on YouTube.
Amongst all the furore over Brexit, the European elections and the disintegration of the main political parties in the United Kingdom, a small but not insignificant news story crept into the news melee.
‘The number of physically disabled people affected by homelessness in England increased by three quarters during an almost 10- year period’ (BBC, 2019a, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019). It is not merely coincidental that the ‘almost 10-year period’ aligns with the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in 2010. Measures, continuously pursued by the Conservative Government until October 2018 when Theresa May, the soon to be former prime minister, declared at a Tory party conference that austerity was over adding, ‘the end is in sight’ and there are ‘better days ahead’ (Independent, 2018a). Give her her dues, with the demise of the Tory party, the latter part was an insightful prediction. Let’s not let the Liberal Democrats off the hook though, reluctant bedfellows they may have been in the coalition government, but bedfellows they were, and they had the power to vote down many of the Tory party dictats. They may have curried favour with the electorate during the European elections, but we should not forget their part in the austerity measures.
Alongside the issues of homelessness, we see the use of foodbanks has increased phenomenally (Independent, 2018b), fuel poverty affects over 10% of English households (Independent, 2018c) and social care is collapsing (BBC, 2019b; Guardian, 2018). To put it as simply as possible, the common denominator is the austerity measures introduced by government that directly impact on the most vulnerable in our so-called civilised society. This and previous governments can point to the budget deficit, the ineptitude of the previous government and the economic downturn caused by the banking crisis (The Economist, 2013), but how do they justify the impact of their policies on the disadvantaged and those who can least afford any cuts? Bizarrely, the least vulnerable have seen little or no impact on their standard of living other than perhaps for the middle classes there is the monotonous moan about access to doctors or dentists in a timely manner (the rich don’t even have to worry about this).
In my visits around schools I discuss what we mean by the term crime. Reiner (2007:21) states that ‘[t]he term ‘crime’ is usually tossed about as if it has a clear and unambiguous meaning’, but nothing of course is further from the truth. One of the key ideas I posit is that of harm caused. This of course has its own problems in terms of definition and scope, but it does allow one to focus on what is important. If harm done is a measure of crime, or crime is defined by the harm done then we begin to see the world, actions by government, institutions and individuals in a different light. With this notion in mind, we can start to ask when and how do we bring the greedy and those that abuse their power either intentionally or recklessly to book? Maybe, just as Boris Johnson might well be prosecuted for misconduct in a public office over the alleged lies, he made relating to Brexit (BBC, 2019c), we might see ministers held to account for decisions they make that have catastrophic consequences for thousands of the most vulnerable in society.
BBC (2019a) Homeless and disabled: ‘I’m at my wits’ end’, [online] Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/disability-48433225/homeless-and-disabled-i-m-at-my-wits-end [accessed 29 May 2019].
BBC (2019b) English ‘short-changed on care funding’ [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-48438132 [accessed 30 May 2019].
BBC (2019c) Brexit: Boris Johnson ordered to appear in court over £350m claim, [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48445430 [accessed 29 May 2019].
Independent (2018a) Theresa May declares ‘austerity is over’ after eight years of cuts and tax increases, (3 Oct. 2018), [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-austerity-end-over-speech-conservative-conference-tory-labour-a8566526.html [accessed 30 May 2019].
Independent (2018b) Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs (24 April 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-bank-uk-benefits-trussell-trust-cost-of-living-highest-rate-a8317001.html [accessed 30 May 2019].
Independent (2018) More than one in 10 households living in fuel poverty, figures show (26 June 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-uk-figures-poor-bills-cost-households-a8417426.html, [accessed 30 May 2019].
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2019) Live tables on homelessness [online] Available at http://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-homelessness , [accessed 30 May 2019].
Reiner, R. (2007) Law and Order: An Honest Citizen’s Guide to Crime and Crime Control, Cambridge: Polity.
The Economist (2013) The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course [online] Available at www.economist.com/schools-brief/2013/09/07/crash-course [accessed 30 May 2019].
The Guardian (2018) The social care system is collapsing. So why the government inaction? (3 Oct. 2019) [online] Available at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/03/social-care-collapsing-government-inaction [accessed 30 May 2019].
This week’s blog was bound to reflect the news this week – Brexit. I almost resisted the temptation to write about this, I feel worn down by it all, but there are just some things which need saying. However you voted, however you feel about what should happen, the whole process has brought to light some alarming issues about our political classes, the process of implementing policy, decisions made about spending of our taxes and the priorities of government. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted against no-deal, for extending Article 50, there are threats from various ministers about resigning and confusion reigns.
To me, Brexit has felt like an exercise in placing ideology before country, on both sides of the political spectrum. It does seem Labour’s proposals do at least protect jobs and the economy, and respect the vote from 2016. I still think on balance we should remain, but I could live with a soft Brexit, and a government which addresses many of the reasons people voted to leave. On the right, however, thanks to the ERG (European Research Group) we have a situation where we are hurtling towards no deal – the vote to take it off the table is apparently not legally binding – or at best, a delay. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted for delaying our exit, and Theresa May is planning one last vote on her deal, seemingly to secure a delay which the EU will accept as legitimate and worthwhile. The Brexiteers on the left and right seem to want no deal and WTO rules, for reasons I cannot understand, aside from serving their own prejudices and financial gains.
The vote itself and the campaigns on the leave side seem mired in corruption and questions over funding and tactics to mislead the public, so I do have to wonder why instead of the outrage at this, there is an acceptance this is the will of the public, and must be acted on. With this and the recent activities of Chris Graying (him again!), costing the tax payer over £500m with failed ferry contracts and privatisation of probation, and now Boris Johnson suggesting investigating historic sexual assaults cases is a waste of money, our political leaders seem to be normalising incompetence. They seem to be able to resist any sense of shame, remorse and criticism of their performance, which is simply staggering. In the face of evidence about this, it amazes me that they don’t reflect on this and the harm being caused. Perhaps I have too high expectations of MPs and I should not tar all of them with the same brush, there are plenty who do a good job, who have the interests of their constituents at heart and value their job as a public servant.
Another example of this normalising of incompetence is when MPs suggested this last minute panic and uncertainty is how all negotiations with the EU go. Well, I can then see why some people are turning against both Parliament and the EU – the anxieties created by this as clear, people have already lost jobs, moved, disrupted family life due to trying to manage the uncertainty. Attention towards domestic issues is diverted by focus on Brexit, blinding many to the well document harms of Universal Credit, increasing homelessness, climate changes and knife crime. I believe many are fed up and would take leaving just to end the discussion and re-focus on domestic needs, but I fear many don’t realise the further problems they may face if we were to leave without a deal. It is then surely the responsibility of MPs and our political leaders to inform the public, make it clear what the best options are and maybe even make an unpopular decisions for the good of their constituents. If I were an MP, I would be concerned about all of this and also the legacy of this – much like Labour having to continually shake of the label of irresponsible spenders, through being blamed solely for creating the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s. Both parties continuing to insist we press ahead with Brexit could be dealing with a similar situation. Younger voters in particular maybe more open to new political parties, less like to be loyal to either Conservative or Labour and may embrace the change that The Independent Group is promising.
To continue with a policy which is creating so many problems, costs, and mental health issues feels like leadership who simply won’t listen to those people they are meant to support and serve. The link to mental health has been make clear in an article in the Guardian reporting that British farmers have reached out to crisis networks due to the implications of Brexit – this is manifest in farmers being on suicide watch, and serious concerns about those not even trying to contact such services (Parveen, 2019). The article reports that farming is just one of many industries which will be hit hard by a no deal Brexit, and in a research study on the extent of this, those who voted remain are reporting heightened mental distress (depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness), while those who voted leave reported a ‘bump’ in life satisfaction (Powdthavee et al, 2019). I can only imagine how the further harms caused if more jobs are lost, the economy slumps and the reality of craving sovereignty and blue passports bites.
Yet I don’t really have to imagine this, it seems blatantly obvious that we are not prepared to leave the EU, more time is needed to come up with a cross party consensus and maybe even a further referendum to be clear this is what the people want. When any leadership disregards the concerns raised from so many sectors, their constituents and colleagues, to press ahead with a policy which will cause harm then we can really see just how normalised incompetence and placing ideology before country has become.
Dr Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Parveen, N (2019) Brexit and bad weather puts UK farmers at risk of suicide, say charitie, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/03/brexit-and-bad-weather-puts-uk-farmers-at-risk-of-suicide-say-charities
Powdthavee, N., Plagnol, A.C., Frijters, P. and Clark, A.E. (2019) Who Got the Brexit Blues? The Effect of Brexit on Subjective Wellbeing in the UK, Economica, see https://doi.org/10.1111/ecca.12304.
Now that the year is almost over, it’s time to reflect on what’s gone before; the personal, the academic, the national and the global. This year, much like every other, has had its peaks and its troughs. The move to a new campus has offered an opportunity to consider education and research in new ways. Certainly, it has promoted dialogue in academic endeavour and holds out the interesting prospect of cross pollination and interdisciplinarity.
On a personal level, 2018 finally saw the submission of my doctoral thesis. Entitled ‘The Anti-Thesis of Criminological Research: The case of the criminal ex-servicemen,’ I will have my chance to defend this work in early 2019, so still plenty of work to do.
For the Criminology team, we have greeted a new member; Jessica Ritchie (@academictraveller) and congratulated the newly capped Dr Susie Atherton (@teachingcriminology). Along the way there may have been plenty of challenges, but also many opportunities to embrace and advance individual and team work. In September 2018 we greeted a bumper crop of new apprentice criminologists and welcomed back many familiar faces. The year also saw Criminology’s 18th birthday and our first inaugural “Big Criminology Reunion”. The chance to catch up with graduates was fantastic and we look forward to making this a regular event. Likewise, the fabulous blog entries written by graduates under the banner of “Look who’s 18” reminded us all (if we ever had any doubt) of why we do what we do.
Nationally, we marked the centenaries of the end of WWI and the passing of legislation which allowed some women the right to vote. This included the unveiling of two Suffragette statues; Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. The country also remembered the murder of Stephen Lawrence 25 years earlier and saw the first arrests in relation to the Hillsborough disaster, All of which offer an opportunity to reflect on the behaviour of the police, the media and the State in the debacles which followed. These events have shaped and continue to shape the world in which we live and momentarily offered a much-needed distraction from more contemporaneous news.
For the UK, 2018 saw the start of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Windrush scandal, the continuing rise of the food bank, the closure of refuges, the iniquity of Universal Credit and an increase in homelessness, symptoms of the ideological programmes of “austerity” and maintaining a “hostile environment“. All this against a backdrop of the mystery (or should that be mayhem) of Brexit which continues to rumble on. It looks likely that the concept of institutional violence will continue to offer criminologists a theoretical lens to understand the twenty-first century (cf. Curtin and Litke, 1999, Cooper and Whyte, 2018).
Internationally, we have seen no let-up in global conflict, the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen (to name but a few) remains fraught with violence. Concerns around the governments of many European countries, China, North Korea and USA heighten fears and the world seems an incredibly dangerous place. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad offers an antidote to such fears and recognises the powerful work that can be undertaken in the name of peace. Likewise the deaths of Professor Stephen Hawking and Harry Leslie Smith, both staunch advocates for the NHS, remind us that individuals can speak out, can make a difference.
To my friends, family, colleagues and students, I raise a glass to the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019:
‘Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear’ (Lennon and Ono, 1974).
Cooper, Vickie and Whyte, David, (2018), ‘Grenfell, Austerity and Institutional Violence,’ Sociological Research Online, 00, 0: 1-10
Curtin, Deane and Litke, Robert, (1999) (Eds), Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi)
Lennon, John and Ono, Yoko, (1974) Happy Xmas (War is Over), [CD], Recorded by John and Yoko: Plastic Ono Band in Shaved Fish. PCS 7173, [s.l.], Apple
Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).
The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.
The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.
The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.
The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes
United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E