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A week has passed since the election and our political parties have had time to reflect on their victory or demise. With such a huge majority in parliament, we can be certain, whether we agree with it or not, that Brexit will be done in one form or another. The prime minister at the first meeting of his cabinet, and as if on cue ready for my blog, in front of the cameras repeated the pre-election promise of 40 extra hospitals and 50,000 extra nurses.
Putting aside my cynicism and concern about how we, as a country, are going to grow enough money trees without our foreign agricultural workers after Brexit, I welcome this much needed investment. I should add here that in the true sense of fairness, pre-election, other parties were likewise offering wonderful trips to fairyland, with riches beyond our wildest dreams. Trying to out trump each other, they managed to even out trump Trump in their hyperbole.
However, rather appropriately as it turns out, whilst sitting in the waiting room at a general hospital on election day, I read a couple of disturbing articles in the i newspaper. Pointing to the fact that makeshift shelters are becoming increasingly common in British cities one article quoted statistics from Homeless Link showing that rough sleeping had increased by 165% since 2010 (Spratt, 2019). Alongside, another article stated that A&E admissions of homeless patients had tripled in the last eight years with 36,000 homeless people attending in the last year (Crew 2019). Whilst I am always cautious regarding statistics, the juxtaposition makes for some interesting observations.
The first being that the promised investment in the NHS is simply a sticking plaster that attempts to deal with the symptoms of an increasingly unequal society.
The second being that the investment will never be enough because groups in society are becoming increasingly marginalised and impoverished and will therefore become an increasing burden on the NHS.
Logic, let alone the medical profession and others, leads me to conclude that if a person does not have enough to eat and does not have enough warmth then they are likely to become ill both physically and probably mentally. So, alongside the homeless, we can add a huge swathe of the population that are on the poverty line or below it that need the services of the NHS. Add to this those that do not have job security, zero-hour contracts being just one example, have massive financial burdens, students another example, and it is little wonder that we have an increasing need for mental health services and another drain on NHS resources. And then of course there are the ‘bed blockers’, a horrible term as it suggests that somehow, it’s their fault, these are of course the elderly, in need of care but with nowhere to go because the social care system is in crises (As much of the right-wing pre-Brexit rhetoric has espoused, “It’ll be better when all the foreigners that work in the system leave after Brexit”). It seems to me that if the government are to deal with the crises in the NHS, they would be better to start with investment in tackling the causes, rather than the symptoms*.
Let me turn back to the pre-election promises, the newspaper articles, and another post-election promise by Boris Johnson.
My recollection of the pre-election promises was around Brexit, the NHS, and law and order. We heard one side saying they were for the people no matter who you were and the other promising one nation politics. I don’t recall any of them specifically saying they recognised a crisis in this country that needed dealing with urgently, i.e. the homeless and the causes of homelessness or the demise of the social care system. Some may argue it was implicit in the rhetoric, but I seem to have missed it.
In her article, Spratt (2019:29) quotes a Conservative candidate as saying that ‘nuisance council tenants should be forced to live in tents in a middle of a field’. Boris Johnson’s one nation politics doesn’t sound very promising, with friends like that, who needs enemies?**
* I have even thought of a slogan: “tough on poverty, tough on the causes of poverty”. Or maybe not, because we all know how that worked out under New Labour in respect of crime.
** The cynical side of me thinks this was simply a ploy to reduce the number of eligible voters that wouldn’t be voting Conservative but, I guess that depends on whether they were Brexiteers or not.
Crew, J. (2019) Homeless A&E admissions triple. i Newspaper, 12 Dec 2019, issue 2824, pg. 29.
Spratt, V. (2019) ‘You Just didn’t see tents in London or in urban areas on this scale. It’s shocking’: Makeshift shelters are becoming increasingly common in British cities. i Newspaper, 12 Dec 2019, issue 2824, pg. 29.
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****?
So, we have a new prime minister Boris Johnson. Donald Trump has given his endorsement, hardly surprising, and yet rather than having a feeling of optimism that Boris in his inaugural speech in the House of Commons wished to engender amongst the population, his appointment fills me with dread. Judging from reactions around the country, I’m not the only one, but people voted for him just the same as people voted for Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.
The reasons for their success lie not in a proven ability to do the job but in notions of popularity reinforced by predominantly right-wing rhetoric. Of real concern, is this rise of right wing populism across Europe and in the United States. References to ‘letter boxes’ (Johnson, 2018), degrading Muslim women or tweeting ethnic minority political opponents to ‘go back to where they came from’ (Lucas, 2019) seems to cause nothing more than a ripple amongst the general population and such rhetoric is slowly but surely becoming the lingua franca of the new face of politics. My dread is how long before we hear similar chants to ‘Alle Juden Raus!’ (1990), familiar in 1930s Nazi Germany?
It seems that such politics relies on the ability to appeal to public sentiment around nationalism and public fears around the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is the unknown in the shadows, people who we do not know but are in some way different. It is not the doctors and nurses, the care workers, those that work in the hospitality industry or that deliver my Amazon orders. These are people that are different by virtue of race or colour or creed or language or nationality and, yet we are familiar with them. It is not those, it is not the ‘decent Jew’ (Himmler, 1943), it is the people like that, it is the rest of them, it is the ‘other’ that we need to fear.
The problems with such popular rhetoric is that it does not deal with the real issues, it is not what the country needs. John Stuart Mill (1863) was very careful to point out the dangers that lie within the tyranny of the majority. The now former prime minister Theresa May made a point of stating that she was acting in the national Interest (New Statesman, 2019). But what is the national interest, how is it best served? As with my university students, it is not always about what people want but what they need. I could be very popular by giving my students what they want. The answers to the exam paper, the perfect plan for their essay, providing a verbal precis of a journal article or book chapter, constantly reminding them when assignments are due, turning a blind eye to plagiarism and collusion*. This may be what they want, but what they need is to learn to be independent, revise for an exam, plan their own essays, read their own journal articles and books, plan their own assignment hand in dates, and understand and acknowledge that cheating has consequences. What students want has not been thought through, what students need, has. What students want leads them nowhere, hopefully what students need provides them with the skills and mindset to be successful in life.
What the population wants has not been thought through, the ‘other’ never really exists and ‘empire’ has long gone. What the country needs should be well thought out and considered, but being popular seems to be more important than delivering. Being liked requires little substance, doing the job is a whole different matter.
*I am of course generalising and recognise that the more discerning students recognise what they need, albeit that sometimes they may want an easier route through their studies.
Alle Juden Raus (1990) ‘All Jews Out’, Directed by Emanuel Rund. IMDB
Himmler, H. (1943) Speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, U.S. National Archives, [online] available at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-posen.htm [accessed 26 July 2019].
Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5th August 2018.
Lucas, A. (2019) Trump tells progressive congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from, CNBC 14 July 2019 [online] available at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/14/trump-tells-progressive-congresswomen-to-go-back-to-where-they-came-from.html [accessed 26 July 2019]
Mill, J. S. (1863) On Liberty, [online] London: Tickner and Fields, Available from https://play.google.com/store/books [accessed 26 July 2019]
New Statesman (2019) Why those who say they are acting in “the national interest” often aren’t, [online] Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/01/why-those-who-say-they-are-acting-national-interest-often-arent [accessed 26 July 2019]
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].
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