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Having read a colleague’s reflection on the past year, I started to think about my own experiences of the year and what meaning it had for me.
As a criminologist I am critical of what I read, see and experience, consequently I have a fairly cynical view of the world and I have to say, the world rarely disappoints. But amongst all the chaos, violence and political hubris, there must surely be chinks of light, otherwise what is the point. A challenge then, to find the positive rather than view the negative, as hard as that may seem.
My year was difficult on both a professional and personal front and it tested my resilience and patience to the full. I have suffered poor health resulting in spells in hospital and long periods away from work. Difficult to engineer any positive spin on that but I’m sure I can give it a go.
We all have read about and no doubt many of us have experienced the crippling effect of an often reported, failing National Health Service (NHS). It would be easy to state the problems and apportion blame, but in doing so we miss some nuggets of positivity (is that a real word?). I have nothing but praise for the staff working under extreme pressure within the health system. When I was suddenly taken ill at home the paramedics that attended were brilliant, one a student from our home university. When I arrived at the hospital, despite a manic casualty unit, I was well cared for by another student from the university. I single these students out because there is a sense of pride in knowing that I am part of an institution that helps teach and coach health staff that care so well for others. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention that all of the other staff were kind and caring. Later when I was admitted to hospital after a number of visits, I found my care to be exemplary. I know this is not everyone’s experience and when we read the news or watch it on television it is all about failure. My exemplary care and that of many around me isn’t particularly newsworthy. Whilst in hospital I was visited by volunteers who were distributing books, kind people that give up their time to help others. When my wife visited, she came in with a cup of coffee purchased from a café within the hospital run by volunteers. More people giving up their time. I know of and feel privileged to have taught and still teach students that volunteer in all sorts of organisations around the country. The cynical side of me says that we shouldn’t have to have volunteers doing this but that is not really the point is it? The point is that there are kind and caring people around that do it to make life a little easier for others.
A prolonged absence from work caused some chaos in teaching, mitigated by colleagues that stepped in. Busy colleagues, overloaded colleagues, who had additional burdens placed upon them due to my absence. Even now on returning to work colleagues are having to take up the slack to cover for my current inability to work at full capacity. But despite these burdens, I have experienced nothing but support and kindness not just resultant of my illness but throughout what has been a difficult year. Difficult to be cynical except that to say some of the difficulties faced should never have arisen but the point is that there were kind and caring people around to provide much needed help and support.
If I turn my thoughts to wider issues, the dreadful events at Fishmonger’s Hall served to remind us of the violent world we live in but that very event also serves to remind us of the kind, caring and brave nature of many. The victims Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were both engaged in a project that was aimed at making society a better place. Those that tackled the terrorist showed the sort of selfless bravery that epitomises the essence of human nature.
If we think about it and it probably doesn’t take too much thinking, we can find countless examples of good things being done by kind and caring people. We can be cynical and suggest that the situations should never have arisen in the first place that necessitated that kindness or those actions, but the incidents and situations are there and are played out in society every day, C’est la vie’. Maybe, just occasionally, rather than thinking about doom and gloom, we should celebrate the capacity of people to simply be human.
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