Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hypocrisy and hubris behind the shared society.

There is something deeply hypocritical about Prime Minister Theresa May’s sudden discovery of the crisis in mental health services.

In her speech to the Charity Commission this week, she pledged to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental illness and improve support for service users.

As a volunteer for two mental health charities part of me wanted to punch the air. Having our most senior politician speak about an issue that is so often side-lined has to be a good thing.

Then the cynic in me wakes up and smells the coffee in a world where nothing significant has changed.

The new money on offer isn’t all that new; it’s not all that much either. It has mostly been shuffled from elsewhere and won’t do more than plug a few holes in a fast sinking boat.

The rest is really just so many honeyed words, if you’ve been around long enough you’ll have heard most of them before.

Parity of esteem is a nice thing to talk about, it is a lot harder to achieve. Doing so requires joined up thinking and serious funding invested over the long term, neither of which are in anything other than short supply.

As for the ‘shared society’, this is a remix of a tune we’ve heard before.

I’m long enough in the tooth to remember John Major promising to create a ‘classless society’. That turned out well, didn't it?

Tony Blair and David Cameron both played variations on the same theme, with the same results. Their words warmed the air for a while; but there was little in the way of significant change

This is suggestive of a deep-seated hubris in the political elite. They believe all they have to do is touch a few tired bases and they can distract the public from the mounting problems in our society.

Those of who have seen into a darker reality know that something is going seriously wrong.

We see the lines forming at the food banks and the patients piling up in hospital corridors and know things are getting worse. Those with children see them saddled with debt and struggling to find somewhere to live and fear for the future.

The sugared sentiments and cynical positioning offered in response by Mrs May and her increasingly out of touch government are both irrelevant and insulting.

They are certainly no barrier against the rising tide of populism by which the political elite are both terrified and, bizarrely, still treat like a passing fad. The populists by contrast are not troubled by facts, common sense or decency; instead, they provide a parade of stereotypes and scapegoats.

People struggling with mental illness present a tempting target for bigots, letting them whip up threats that don't exist through amplifying difference into deviance.

If it were just a matter of the political class capering along the path to oblivion I’d treat Mrs May's posturing this week as just so much chaff thrown out to deflect criticism of the mess her party is making of the NHS.

Unfortunately they ignore the extent to which the policies of this government and the one before have made them complicit in excluding vulnerable people, worse yet they could lead to their being further marginalized; that is unforgivable.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Freedom is fragile; we shouldn’t let a scared political class put barriers in the way of our rights.

Two news stories reminded me recently that the franchise we all take for granted is less secure than we think.

Over Christmas, while the political circus was out of town the government slipped out the announcement that plans to trial requiring voters to produce ID at polling stations in eighteen areas at the next local elections.

This is, outwardly at least, a response to claims made in a report written by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that electoral fraud is a real and present threat to the legitimacy of our democracy.

In nearly twenty years active involvement with politics I have seen little evidence of this. Where there are infringements of the rules, it is more often due to a mix of innocence and incompetence than criminality.

Never mind, it gives the government a chance to make a knee jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist.

Then a couple of days into the new year I opened the Daily Mirror to read a full page plea for readers to write to Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to protest against section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This nasty little piece of legislation will make newspapers liable for the full legal costs of any case taken out against them, even if the court finds in the papers favour. The only way papers can avoid potential bankruptcy is by joining state backed press regulator IMPRESS, a quango so sinister it might have given Stalin second thoughts.

A better way of muzzling the press and scaring owners and editors out of supporting investigative journalism is impossible to imagine.

Both these stories have a subtext that says something dark and worrying about the attitudes of the political establishment.

Asking voters to produce ID at polling stations isn’t about combating electoral fraud; it is a way of keeping anyone who might support something other than the neo-liberal economic consensus quiet. After all the biggest impact of this plan will be on the communities it has hit hardest, where people haven’t got passports because they often can’t afford to eat never mind go on foreign holidays.

The political class have never forgiven the press for exposing their not so little fiddles over their expenses. Remember the people who wanted you to pay for their duck houses are the same hypocrites who want benefits claimants sanctioned for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.

In Britain, we like to imagine that we are different to other countries that have written constitutions. It is a comforting myth based on imagined superiority; it is as dangerous as it is deluded.

If we allow the press to be muzzled by people with deep pockets and dark secrets and voting to become something they let us do only when we have proved who we are to some official it will be a symbolic snipping of the silken cords that hold up our democracy. There is a real risk of their being replaced by the steel cables of control and coercion.