Are Disabled People Losing the Equality Fight in Britain?
Author: Paul Dodenhoff
Contact : https://www.disabled-world.com/info/paul-dodenhoff.php
British writer Paul Dodenhoff writes on the upcoming U.K. election and asks whether people with disabilities are losing the equality fight in Britain.
- The 2019 United Kingdom general election is scheduled to be held on Thursday 12th December 2019.
- The U.K. election is to be held under the provisions of the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019, two and a half years after the previous general election in June 2017.
Well, here we are again, yet another general election looming, with the polls indicating that we are heading for some kind of Conservative majority (again). If that happens, then the above question will become highly relevant to where disabled people fit into British society. And arguably, disabled people will never fit comfortably into any British society that is governed by the Conservative Party.
This new election is primarily over Parliament's inability or reluctance, depending on your point of view, to implement the results of the 2016 European Referendum. But for disabled people, the election result will have huge implications. As it stands today, disability equality in the UK has taken any number of backward steps since 2010, when the Conservatives first came into power. Looking through their 2019 election manifesto, we find just 3 pages spread across its 62 pages focusing on disabled people - amounting to just 5 policy pledges. In general, it is largely silent on a range of issues that are most important to disabled people in Britain today, with no mention of disability rights or how a new Conservative government would meet its obligations to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Clearly, the Conservatives don't think disabled people should have any. Bearing in mind that just two years ago, the UN told the UK government it had to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people's human rights. Improvements that we have never seen. Contrast the Conservative manifesto with the Labour Party document and we find one that proposes a wide range of measures across welfare, public services, transport, housing and jobs that will enable disabled people to live independently, be treated with dignity and respect, and participate fully in society. Election promises aimed at sweeping away a deliberately created environment of prejudice and hostility towards disabled people.
Certainly, the British Conservative party have at least been a torn in the side of disabled people for many years - with 'austerity' argued to have hit disabled people disproportionately harder than the rest of society. Read the key findings of "The Tipping Point: The Human and Economic Costs of Cutting Disabled People's Support" by Andrew Kaye, Hayley Jordan and Mark Baker (2012). We find:
- Arbitrary cuts to support for people who are too ill or disabled to work
- Thousands of very sick and disabled people wrongly labelled fit to work
- 9/10 welfare advisors highlighting the frequency of disability reassessments as having a negative impact on disabled claimants' health
- Billions cut from the social care budget
- Price hikes in charges for essential services
- Benefits reduced.
And only this year did Professor Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, state in his final report on the UK that disabled people were 'some of the hardest hit by austerity measures'. A report that concluded many disabled people's families had actually been 'driven to breaking point' by cuts to social care, as well as being denied the benefits they needed and forced by the government into unsuitable work.
Arguably, that is the trick. By cutting benefits in such an arbitrary and cruel fashion government is simply trying to force sick and disabled people back into work, regardless of circumstances or medical condition. You certainly don't need to delve too far or too long into welfare benefit cases to come across people with no arms and legs being classified as 'fit for work', people with heart conditions dropping dead at job-centres after being forced to attend advisory meetings or sent motivational and incentivizing text messages about employment while dying in hospital. Seriously, you could not make any of this up. So, we do need to question the aims of policy that not only seems cruel but deliberately set up to be as barbaric as possible.
However, if you look back throughout British history, from the days of Henry VIII right up to the creation of the Victorian workhouse, Britain has always treated its 'poor' with open contempt. In essence, the poor are perceived simply as a rabble of inherently lazy people who will live off the hard work of others unless motivated otherwise. And indeed, if we go back to the actions of Henry VIII himself, we can pinpoint the dissolution of the monasteries as a cause for large numbers of the sick, the disabled and the elderly being thrown out of the care of the churches and onto the streets, where subsequently most turned to begging in order to survive.
And the bearded one's solution to this sudden surge of begging and vagrancy? Split the poor into two distinct groups - those deserving of help and those who are not. While allowing the sick, disabled and elderly to continue to beg for money of course, but publically whipping the living daylights out of anybody considered fit enough and abled-bodied enough to work.
Am I the only one to see a similar ethos in the way the Department of Work's and Pensions operate today? They may not physically whip people for being unemployed but I certainly get the impression that they would if they could only get away with it. And then again, turning off your only income as way of incentivizing you back into work, pretty much has the same effect. In other words, work or die.
Clearly, we need to get our heads around the fact that throughout British history that there has always been an enormous amount of prejudice centring on the immorality of the poor, particularly over a lack of responsibility and work ethic. That concern has arguably manifested itself in state behaviour over the centuries and decades that designs help and support for those in the very extremes of poverty, to be so terrible and so harsh that it will deter all but the very desperate in seeking that help.
Ideology and Not Necessity
Let's get this straight. The 'austerity' programme that began in 2010 was purely a political decision, not an economic one. Another phase of rolling back state intervention in the lives of the individual, particularly those deemed to be immoral, irresponsible or lazy. In 2016 even economists from the International Monetary Fund concluded that austerity policies can and often do more harm than good. In the UK's case, austerity policies arguably became little more than just another chapter in the neoliberal songbook, a form of socio-economic ideology that was ushered in by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. An opportunistic move that played upon the 2008 global financial crash in order for the Conservative/Liberal coalition government of 2010 to introduce another phase of Thatcherite reform.
Now that I've mentioned the wicked old witch, listen to Mrs T's assessment of her own electorate during her time as Prime Minister:
"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."
— Margaret Thatcher (1987)
Arguably, not a controversial view when taken at face value and some people may even agree with the basic logic, that individuals should be responsible for their own actions. Society should therefore not be the first port of call in helping you survive the world you are born into. However, the underlying and not-so-hidden assumption (or ideology) is that if you are not self-responsible, you must therefore suffer the consequences of that irresponsibility. In other words, punished by society for those moral failings.
Certainly, read the tabloids or speak to people on the street and the idea of Britain as being a soft touch for the shiftless and the lazy won't be far away. In this world view, young women are having children simply in order to get a flat and young males are sat on their bums all day long because they can get more money from the state than they ever could by working. But is it true? What evidence is it based upon? Do people really think they have an automatic entitlement to state support and has there been an erosion of self-responsibility because of it?
Certainly, if you need state support of any type, you won't be wealthy before nor after. And you will also be monitored to high heaven. Now, nobody is denying that some people may indeed be lazy, some may be immoral and some irresponsible, but clearly the social problems that effect Britain are far more complex than simplistic notions based primarily around a dep-rooted prejudice or even a deep-rooted fear of the poor. I've known many lazy and immoral people in my lifetime, all of whom were employed in some kind of paid role or another and usually quite comfortably off. Make of that as you will.
Despite the arguments otherwise, no real evidence has ever been gathered to suggest that the majority of people who are poor for whatever reason that may be, are simply that way because they are irresponsible, immoral and/or lazy. Work with the homeless, work with young mums, work with disabled people or work with those with alcohol and drug problems and you will often find any number of complex issues as the underlying root cause. But laziness will arguably not be one of them.
Speak to young unemployed males as I have done in the past and the only sense of entitlement you really ever get is a sense of entitlement to employment itself, particularly stable employment. Be that a right or wrong attitude to hold, but there you go. These guys wanted to work but came up against a system that frustrated the hell out of that ambition, in many weird and wonderful ways. And it's a system that continually moves the goal posts, where not being in work is primarily your own fault for not wanting to work, not looking hard enough to find work or not being competitive enough against other applicants. There is therefore nobody else to blame except yourself. Certainly not society nor the state.
Become unemployed in the UK today and you will also be quickly sent on a course showing you how to read or write, complete a job search, how to complete a CV and how to handle a job interview. All worthwhile stuff but only useful if you don't already have those skills - and many already do. Most job searches are also conducted on-line so that the Jobcentres themselves can monitor how many hours you are actually putting in. And after hundreds of hours, after sending off hundreds of job applications, I've known people still unemployed after many years of fruitless activity. All your own fault of course and certainly not the fault of government nor its constant economic tinkering. You are just not motivated enough.
However, the males I spoke to did indeed feel government should be interfering and getting involved in economic matters, but in doing so they should be creating the conditions where employment becomes freely available. Not quite grasping the notion that Conservative administrations in Britain often flirt with high unemployment as a way of creating competition for employment that helps keep wages low.
Most interestingly for me and perhaps highlighting how complex these things can actually be, what these males wanted most of all was traditional 'man's work' - and primarily in manufacturing. Jobs that arguably don't exist to the same degree in Britain when their dads and grandads were their age. These jobs satisfied a notion of masculinity that government doesn't seem to get a handle on. Speak to managers of jobcentres and they also don't get it. They have loads of vacant jobs in care homes or jobs stacking shelves and operating the tills at Tesco's, so why don't these kids take those as a stepping stone to something better? Many had indeed done so and had found no such social progression, quite the opposite. With some adding that this was 'women's work' anyway.
And then, when go for such a job, you are either deemed too young, too old, too experienced, not experienced enough - if simply not over-qualified to begin with. Hence the old tired joke of what do you get from someone with a second class degree? Answer - a cappuccino or a latte. Then if you do get one of these low paid, low skilled jobs, is it simply lighting the blue touch paper to your brain? Waiting for your head to explode with often serious knock-on consequences for those on the receiving end of policy that effectively puts unsuitable people into unsuitable employment - just for the hell of it? And to boost up the employment stats, of course. But I digress.
Sadly, UK manufacturing has certainly been in relative decline since the 1960s and the stats back that assertion up. For example, in 1980, 25% of jobs were in manufacturing, by 2010, the percentage of jobs in manufacturing had fallen to 8.2%. A changing world of employment yes, but often hidden behind the statistics is a human cost as outlined above. Certainly, from my experience I didn't find a lack of motivation or a reluctance to work in those seeking employment, quite the opposite. Most of the research I've come across also basically concludes the same.
Unfortunately, personal experience and/or anecdotal evidence count for little when up against government statistics and Britain's toxic tabloid press. "There are more people in employment these days than ever before, blah-de-blah-de-blah…...There are more disabled people in employment now than ever, blah-de blah-de-blah-de…." argue the stats guys and girls. Conveniently not mentioning that how we measure such things often changes every other week and for the obvious reasons.
Similarly, speak to disabled people and everybody I met also wanted to work, if physically, mentally or psychologically capable. There was certainly no evidence of a feeling of entitlement towards welfare, simply an entitlement to a level playing field. Despite the political or media rhetoric, if you are disabled in Britain the chances are that you will live in poverty. In fact, we have seen a large number of sick and disabled commit suicide through the stress and worry that reform of the welfare system has caused.
In addition, in 2017 the charity Scope commissioned research that indicated that disabled people need to apply for 60 per cent more jobs than non-disabled jobseekers before they even find work. Not the actions of people generally lazy or unmotivated I would say.
Ironically, the only people I've ever met who have do seem to have a real sense of entitlement towards 'benefits' is British pensioners. Now, I'm not pensioner bashing here but speak to people on a state pension and most if not all will say that the state pension is their entitlement, their birth right. Having paid into the system for many, many years, they want something out of it when they are too old to continue working. And I bloody well agree.
Unfortunately, a Conservative led administration generally doesn't agree, as far as they are concerned, the state pension is a welfare benefit like any other welfare benefit, and as such has been targeted for 'reform' over the last few years. In other words, targeted for eventual removal. Something many Brits don't seem to see coming, particularly pensioners themselves who are argued to consistently vote in their droves for a Conservative government.
For those who disagree, just how look at how much of the welfare budget is generally spent on unemployment compared to the state pension - less than 1% on unemployment compared to around 47% on the state pension. Of course, ask the electorate (as some have indeed done) and often the percentage spent on unemployment will be perceived to be far higher than that 1% - and arguably because of all those lazy people the tabloids keep telling us about.
But just think for a minute, if unemployment spending is indeed such a big issue of concern for most Conservative governments, imagine the hissy fit they will be having over something that costs 47 times more than unemployment each year?
Prejudice versus Irresponsibility
While I agree that people should be self-responsible, I certainly don't agree that the British welfare state encourages dependency - nor that poor people are inherently irresponsible and lazy. That is a bogus argument that is arguably disseminated simply in order to sell all manner of reform to a gullible and largely out-of-touch electorate. Sorry fellow Brits, but you need to wake up and smell the coffee.
Speak to homeless people in the way I have done and losing employment, unscrupulous landlords, a lack of access to social housing, mental health issues, domestic abuse or child abuse will often raise its head as a primarily cause of why Britain's streets are full of people sleeping on them. And in all weathers. Speak to the unemployed and sickness, injury, redundancy, discrimination, bullying or harassment often come up as a cause of why they are not in work. Speak to those with drug and alcohol issues and you will often come across many horrific stories that are too upsetting to discuss here - including the experiences of ex-servicemen and woman who have seen and done things in the name of us all, that they will never be able to forget or forgive themselves for. And of course, speak to or interview disabled people and while some will be born with a serious disability, most will have acquired acute sickness or impairment along the way. Sometimes through work itself.
So no, there is no dependency culture in my book and in general there are no acts of irresponsibility that are primarily the cause of poverty. Yes, there are people who may appear to have caused their own downfall in various ways, but these are complex issues where cutbacks to education, welfare support, social care, child and family services, social housing, mental health services, youth services, probation services and things like drug and alcohol abuse services only end up making matters ten times worse than they need to be. Of course, it may all seem like the state is acting like 'nanny' by providing access to such things, but what is the alternative? Greater depths of homelessness, poverty, crime and social unrest?
You may want to go back to Victorian Britain with all the poverty, disease and malnutrition associated with those times, I certainly don't. In 2015, the NHS reported that cases of malnutrition and 'Victorian' diseases such as scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough had all increased since the Conservatives gained power in 2010. A result of cuts to social services and rising food poverty, according to many. The British Dietetic Association also report more than 3 million people Brits currently at risk of malnutrition - the vast majority living in the wider community, with 5% in residential care and 2% in hospital.
Now if you are neither shocked nor worried by those stats I think you need to remind yourself of the current year - it is 2019 not 1819. Of course, that fact will be irrelevant to many British politicians. The aim of government and let's be clear that I'm taking primarily about a 'Conservative' administration, is arguably to remove state intervention as much as possible in order to re-incentivise people to behave in what they believe to be a moral or socially responsible manner.
At best a shoddy and bungling attempt at social engineering, but at worse a form of state fascism and social genocide. So, go to school, get a good education, get a job, don't have children unless you can afford them and/or are married first, buy or rent a house, don't smoke, don't drink, don't do drugs, don't do this, that or the other. Especially the other.
Or else…..I should add. Unfortunately, even if it was done out of good intent and I'm not convinced that it is, it is a highly unrealistic and unobtainable goal for most of us. Because as a bare minimum, we are all human beings and therefore prone to the frailties of human nature. In addition, not many of us are born with the ability to hit the ground running pretty much immediately after dropping out of the womb. All of us are also prone to making mistakes, stupid or otherwise.
Yet, for me there is an underlying assumption that I hear in many of the political arguments that circulate in Britain today. An argument that we indeed all capable from day one of achieving whatever we wish to achieve, that we are all born into the same world and that we are all born onto the same level and equal playing field. So, it is those who are motivated the most and who work hard that earn the rewards - and if you are in poverty, it is because you have not worked or certainly not worked hard enough. And if you make a mistake or bad decision, you shall be forever punished for it - unless you have a family willing to cover up that mistake for you, of course.
For most of us life often doesn't always work out that straightforwardly regardless of how well motivated we are or how responsible we may be. It's a nonsense, it's a fairy tale and one that is experienced by an only few lucky citizens. And it's a carefully constructed fairy tale at that. Only this year, a report from the Government's own Social Mobility Commission argued that it is failures in education and employment policies that have caused class privilege to become ever more entrenched. Therefore, inequality in Britain is deeply entrenched from birth to work and entry into any kind of decent employment still very much depends on your parent's occupation and social class - not personal motivation.
So, what is the reality that government either deliberately ignores or misguidedly thinks we exist in? Clearly none of us choose our parents, yet the quality of our lives from birth to death still very much depend upon who our parents are and where we are born. Then to make matters worse, we are often faced with a government that effectively works against most of us in order to stop any real chance of social progression. Of course, this could be intentional or not, but it sure seems like some of us are being deliberately cultivated in order to be used as cheap and disposable labour.
Marxist nonsense I hear you cry? Maybe, maybe not. In 2018 the Joseph Roundtree Foundation reported that more than 14 million Brits are struggling in poverty - or about one in five of the total UK population. Of these, 8 million are working-age adults, 4 million are children and 1.9 million are pensioners. Eight million people live in poverty in families where at least one person is in work - around 12% of the current population. So, as a minimum, if being in employment and working hard brings great rewards as is usually argued, something is significantly misfiring for 14 million of us. Unless we are all lazy and don't realise it.
Responsibility, Obligations and the 'Third Way'
Listen to other British Prime Ministers talk about the poor, about entitlement and reasonability and the spectre of Mrs T looms large. Here's Tony Blair, Labour Party Prime Minister in Britain from 1997 to 2007 -speaking in 2002:
"In welfare, for too long, the right had let social division and chronic unemployment grow; the left argued for rights but were weak on responsibilities. We believe passionately in giving people the chance to get off benefit and into work. We have done it for 1¼ million."
"But there are hundreds of thousands more who could work, given the chance. It's right for them, for the country, for society. But with the chance, comes a responsibility on the individual - to take the chance, to make something of their lives and use their ability and potential to the full."
"That is the key to Job Centre Plus. It embodies on the one hand the enabling welfare state, spreading opportunity - and on the other our reform of public services, as a new responsive service focused on the jobless. But for it to work, it has to be founded on mutual responsibility."
"Government has a responsibility to provide real opportunities for individuals to gain skills and to get into work that pays. But individuals also have a responsibility to grasp those opportunities."
"All of our reforms have the same underlying principles - opportunity, fairness and mutual responsibility. We want to give people the chance to fulfil their potential. We want to raise people's expectations and their self-belief, by giving them the tools to help themselves."
Hardly shocking stuff and nothing inherently or remotely 'fascist' in that speech, even recognising that the previous Conservative government had failed to provide us with the 'tools' and the 'opportunities' we should be provided with. But certainly there was also a heavy leaning towards responsibly, together with an obligation on us all to take our employment opportunities when presented with them.
Of course, this was Tony's 'third way', a political position akin to centrism that tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by advocating a varying synthesis of the two. For sure, he presided over a significant expansion of the welfare state during his time in office, leading to a significant and laudable reduction in relative poverty, particularly pensioner and child poverty. However, by 2004, the Institute for Public Policy Research accused his government of simply failing to fight for a much fairer and more equal Britain - as the gap between rich and poor continued to grow under his premiership.
Leading to many of us to debate Mr Blair's actual authenticity and willingness to provide the tools that help lift people out of poverty, as he indeed promised in 2002. Particularly so for disabled people who also had to face the Work Capability Assessment, something developed under Mr Blair's premiership but not introduced until 2008. A test that monitored disabled people to see if they were as disabled as they and the medics said they were.
Clearly, Mr Blair didn't trust disabled people nor the ability of the medical profession to weed out the abled-bodied shirkers from the genuine disabled claimants. From day one, disabled people complained about a system of jumping through hoops like a performing seal, in order to prove their disability. A situation that arguably got progressively and shamefully worse after 2010. So, what about David Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016 and the chief architect of this new Thatcherite, hostile regime? What does he believe?
".......we have, in some ways, created a welfare gap in this country between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it. Those within it grow up with a series of expectations: you can have a home of your own, the state will support you whatever decisions you make, you will always be able to take out no matter what you put in. This has sent out some incredibly damaging signals. That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. It gave us millions of working-age people sitting at home on benefits even before the recession hit. It created a culture of entitlement. And it has led to huge resentment amongst those who pay into the system, because they feel that what they're having to work hard for, others are getting without having to put in the effort."
— David Cameron (2012)
Certainly, there is a similar tone surrounding the arguments around responsibility and entitlement that we also saw in Mrs T's interview way back in 1987. And of course, elements of responsibility and obligation that Tony Blair had also shown public angst over, 10 years previous to Cameron's speech. A pesky welfare state for sure and one that has some questions to answer, according to the politicians. Or does it? For a start, there is little evidence for to back up claims that the welfare system has created a dependency culture. That it pays not to work and that there are millions of perfectly capable people sat on their bums receiving welfare benefits. Take a look at a couple of newspaper reports from 2013:
"Nearly four million people of working age in Britain have never had a proper job, shock figures reveal. [...] More than a third of those who have never earned a living are aged between 18 and 24 — with a new generation struggling in an age of economic gloom."
— (The Sun, 10th Feb 2013)
'Lazy Britain', the papers roared, as it was revealed that 4 million Britons never punched a clock in their life."
— (The Daily Mail, 11th Feb 2013).
Researchers who analysed these newspaper reports all declared that the figures used were actually highly misleading. Statistics made up primarily of people who were either engaged in full-time education, had a disability, sickness or were looking after their family or home. So, while such reports claimed that there were millions of the lazy able-bodied languishing on benefits, closer scrutiny revealed nothing of the sort, at least not on the scale the newspapers were reporting?
Eradicating Idleness, 1940's Style
Such misleading reports are obviously generated to whip up continual public support for reform of Britain's welfare system. A system constantly argued to be over-generous, prone to abuse and one that only encourages laziness and dependency. But if we actually look back at the beginning of the welfare state we find that eradicating laziness was actually one of its key aims. It was not simply a system built in order to hand-out taxpayers money like sweets willy-nilly to the sick, the lame nor the lazy, as often suggested.
For example, read the pre-WWII Beveridge report and we find arguments for reform aimed at eradicating the five 'evils' of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, as well as idleness. Yes, the vison was also to eradicate idleness and to create as near to full employment as possible. By working and being in employment, you therefore gave people the means to support themselves and yes, to be self-responsible and independent.
However, when Margaret Thatcher set about her Laissez-faire economic restructuring in 1979, it was policy that dramatically saw unemployment rocket to over 3 million by 1984. Reforms that argued that Beveridge's vison for full employment had actually become unsustainable in a changing economic and increasingly global world. However, I don't think it is churlish for me to suggest that full employment also caused wages to rise, particularly in low-skilled employment. And don't forget that 'Thatcherism' was a time when trade unionism came under constant political attack and workers' rights slashed to the bare bones.
Now, whatever the pros and cons of Thatcher's economic reforms and regardless of whether these were necessary changes or not. It is clear that many people and communities got left behind in this period of economic and political upheaval, and left behind simply because millions lost their jobs. Nothing to do with laziness. And I knew many people who lost their employment during this time, quite a few who subsequently struggled to find alternative and stable employment for many years afterwards.
So, casting aspersions on the character of the unemployed for being dependent upon the state and primarily due to a lack of motivation, is not just completely bogus but arguably designed to deliberately hide the real causes of unemployment. The consequence of government policy, as well as the subsequent deindustrialisation that hit huge swaths of the UK, particularly Wales and northern England in the 1980's. Whatever valid reasons there may have been for sweeping economic reform, arguably it was done with little regard for the livelihoods of millions of ordinary working class people.
Fast forward again to Tony Blair in 1997 and we pretty much find a British PM busily attempting to modify left-wing ideas around welfare in order to also fit into this 'changing' economic and political reality of globalisation. The process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale. So much so, that when Margaret Thatcher was asked what she regarded as her being greatest political achievement, she is said to have replied, Tony Blair's 'New Labour'.
Certainly, Blair was also convinced that what Beveridge had concluded many years previously was now outdated because of this new global environment. But while Thatcher and Blair both argued that they were simply reacting to a rapidly changing and competitive global world, that doesn't provide much comfort for those on the receiving end of such reform. I once heard Tony Blair comment that people will just have to get use to the idea of not having stable employment, where some may even have to retrain every 2 years in order to find alternative employment. That's fine, but what guarantee is there that you would be able to find a new job every two years? Slim to nil if you ask me. And that's even if you not disabled.
Brexit and Disabled People
Below is a quote from a Government report issued in 2011 in response to the global crash of 2008:
"In the years leading up to the financial crisis, a failure of government regulation meant that banks borrowed too much, and took on risks they did not understand. By 2007, the UK financial system had become the most highly leveraged of any major economy. When the bubble burst, huge global banks proved 'too big to fail', and the UK taxpayer was called upon for billions of pounds to prevent widespread collapse of the financial sector."
— HMChancellor of the Exchequer (2011)
The first thing to note is that the financial crisis of 2008 was not caused by Tony Blair overspending on welfare, as is often argued by the media and Conservative politicians themselves. The austerity packages pushed upon us have therefore absolutely nothing to do with the welfare state. Secondly, the bailout to the financial banking sector was primarily because they had become far too big to fail. If that had been allowed to happen, the capitalist system as we know it would have been decimated. Thirdly, the taxpayer was not asked if it approved of the huge spending needed to protect against the collapse of the financial system - it just happened. No discussion of whether the UK could afford it, no discussion of whether it was morally acceptable and certainly no real discussion of how much this would cost us. Compare that to the daily angst we get over welfare spending, particularly over sickness and disability.
Austerity certainly wasn't on Tony Blair's agenda in 1997 but it was firmly on the Conservative manifesto come 2010 and primarily as an opportunity to roll back the welfare state in a way that Margaret Thatcher would have surely approved of. However, these extreme measures may also have backfired on David Cameron's government itself years later, when austerity was argued to be one the chief factors leading to 'Brexit', Britain's departure from the EU.
Britain's exit from the European Union or Brexit as it is known here in dear old Blighty has caused particular consternation amongst many disabled people. A political decision that increases the likelihood that Britain's disabled of becoming ever more isolated within their own communities and within their own country. In an open letter to the Independent newspaper only last year, disability campaigners and a string of leading academics warned that the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Brexit were particularly psychologically damaging for disabled people.
However, the implications of Brexit are also huge in many other ways too for disabled people. But despite the political and media noise surrounding Brexit growing increasingly louder, there has been virtual silence over the possible consequences of Brexit on disabled rights. For example, The European Accessibility Act of 2015 ensures that products and services are accessible to disabled people. Campaign groups have highlighted that losing this Act, plus losing access to the European Social Fund that currently gives £500m a year to organisations in the UK to provide employment and training support, will be the final nail in the coffin for many disabled people. And according to reports, government has failed to conduct research to access the potential impact. But no surprise in that.
We should also point out that there are also economic problems that Brexit may actually cause Britain, where economists are estimating that even a Brexit involving staying in some kind of customs union with the EU would still leave the UK £80bn worse off per year than if it had remained in the EU. The figures read even worse for having no customs union at all. That piece of news came from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) estimating that tax income alone would fall by £13bn a year. And as we know, less tax revenue in short usually means less spending on welfare, particularly on disability and the unemployed.
If we focus on those economists who do openly support Brexit, such as Professor Patrick Minford, one of the 'Economists for Brexit' group and supported by many leading Conservative politicians. We find somebody recommending economic policy by which the UK should strike no new trade deals at all, but instead unilaterally abolish all of its import tariffs. Something that is argued would destroy what remains of the UK's manufacturing base and of course, British jobs along with it.
Therefore, the idea of Brexit opening a Pandora's Box of nasties, is a notion that has gathered increasing strength since the referendum took place in 2016. And watching Westminster tackle Brexit has been a little bit like watching someone trying to force a square peg into a round hole with a mallet. Not only highlighting a clear lack of political intelligence and lack of economic nuance amongst the reigning British 'establishment', but a glaring self-interest that seems to supersede any notion that its citizens actually matter. We don't and the EU referendum result has arguably been hijacked by those who want Brexit their way and no other, regardless of the social consequences. Hence the upcoming General Election on December 12th.
So, why did people vote for Brexit in the first place? A study by Becker, Fetter and Novy in 2017 argued that the referendum result was largely driven by some long-standing factors, most importantly those that make it harder for some social groups to deal with the challenges of economic and social change. Including a population that is less educated, an increasingly older one and one faced with rapidly diminishing public services. They also found that less-educated voters may also have been more susceptible to negative press in the form of the anti-EU propaganda pushed by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express newspapers.
Clearly, the argument is that it was those who have been left behind the most within recent years from both economic reforms and austerity, who tended to vote for Brexit. A Brexit that will arguably leave even more people behind as the years roll on. But how do disabled people themselves fit a pattern of behaviour that seems little more than turkeys voting for Christmas? As far as I can tell there is no information on how disabled people actually voted in the referendum. Considering that most research indicates that it was those who have been 'left-behind' the most in society who may have been most likely to have voted leave, it is entirely possible that many disabled people may also have also voted that way.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are some disabled people at least who do realise that EU legislation has done much to support disability rights in the UK, legislation that the UK would certainly not have implemented otherwise.
The Link Between Ableism & Brexit
Interestingly, there seems to be a remarkable synergy between those who push Brexit on the ticket that leaving the EU will regain our independence, autonomy and self-reliance as a country, and those who argue that welfare reform is vital for motivating and incentivizing the unemployed, the sick and the disabled to become more independent and more self-reliant. As Dan Goodley wrote some time ago, 'ableism' is the embodiment of responsibility and self-responsibility. It sure seems to be. Arguably, for disabled people, a referendum run mainly along able-bodied lines of countering dependency and subservience as a country may have left a particularly strange taste in the mouth.
But it is interesting to see how increasingly angry Brits are getting over pretty much everything these days. While I'm not arguing that there is any connection between Brexit and disability hate crime, hate crime in general has certainly continued to increase right across the board since 2016. In fact there was a spike in hate crime levels that seem related (at least in part) to the aftermath of the Brexit vote. And while the records show disability hate crime to be on the increase, for whatever reason that may be, there are less and less cases being prosecuted through the courts.
So yes, people may be more willing to report hate crimes, and yes, the police may be better at recording such incidents. But in the case of disability, why are less cases being prosecuted? Police figures obtained by the charity United Response show the total number of disability hate crimes reported to the police had indeed risen by 54% since 2016-17, but during that same time charges or prosecutions of these crimes have fallen by more than a fifth (21%).
Certainly, government austerity measures have cut police numbers and consequently their powers to investigate crime, but again, disabled people seem to be bearing the brunt of government austerity measures compared to other social groups. Particularly when according to the Crown Prosecution Service itself, 85% of all hate crime prosecutions now result in a conviction.
This is especially important for me. For many years I have argued that the prejudice that drives disability hate crime is little different than the prejudice that drives discrimination. Two sides of the same coin perhaps. But we can almost trace an element of prejudice towards disabled people hidden within government policy on welfare reform itself and highlighted only when the consequences come to light.
I've already mentioned a huge difference in the political election manifestos of the British Conservative Party and the Labour Party towards disabled people. And we can easily find arguments that disabled people have suffered more than any other group from government austerity policies. Certainly, if you look back through British history we can also find a very clear prejudice towards the poor centred on the concepts of irresponsibility and work ethic. Something that doesn't seem to have gone away.
By 2021 it is argued that spending on welfare benefits for the UK's poorest families, including disabled people will have shrunk by nearly a quarter since 2010. Now, hitting the very poorest people in society with welfare cuts of 25% (while cutting taxes for the very richest in society at the same time) seems a very odd way of alleviating poverty. Something that isn't exactly working, if judged by the record numbers of people using charity food banks and a continually rising homeless population.
What Would Marx Say?
Arguably, a Conservative government winning a clear majority in the upcoming election is certain to be a complete disaster for British disabled people. As would Brexit itself. In short, it's game over for disability rights - at least for another five years of Conservative rule. If the global world is indeed continually changing, not only will disabled people be fighting those challenges like everyone else but primarily on an increasingly uneven playing field meted out by a Conservative Party who seem to have no real empathy nor compassion towards the unemployed - including sick and disabled people.
I just wonder what Karl Marx would have made of it all? Drag Karl Marx into any modern day debate over poverty or the poor themselves, even for a second and you likely to open your bedroom curtains one morning only to find that there are gangs of people outside with flaming torches and pitchforks baying for your blood. Socialism or Marxism equals 'extremism' in many people's eyes and indeed envy (if not stupidity). "What you bloody socialists don't understand is this etc. etc.….."
You only need to witness the torrid abuse someone like Jeremy Corbyn receives on a daily basis, the current Labour Party leader, to see how the British cookie crumbles. However, study politics or economics at any level and you will be well versed with Marxism as a perfectly valid and academic critique of Conservative or Liberal politics and of course, Capitalism in general. Marx & Marxism is therefore still relevant in helping to highlight how social problems such as poverty may indeed come into existence.
For sure, Marx viewed capitalism as an inherently unstable and chaotic system, partly due to technological advances and innovation, but partly also to the greed of those who own the means of production. If we look back at the basic tenant of Marxism, the conclusion is that while history is formed in stages, the rich as a class of people will always exploit the poor and the weak as a class of people. Those are the basics. For Marx, slaves in ancient Rome and the working classes therefore share the same basic exploitation.
Arguably, someone like Jeremy Corbyn is not even a Marxist, despite all the grief he gets, but simply a modern day social reformer in the mould of someone like Beveridge. However, no matter how positive social reform is, how welcome or how timely it is, it can only ever be viewed as a 'concession' from the rich and powerful to the rest of us. And largely a temporary one at that. Arguably something we have seen during the three major periods of economic reform that begun under the likes of Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. Reform which in each case saw the gap between rich and poor grow increasingly wider.
We Brits tend to conveniently ignore that Karl Marx spent a lot of time in Manchester in the 1800's, a city that exemplified the tensions that began to surface in this new industrial society. While the seeds of trade unionism or 'socialism' had been sowed a long time before Karl Marx, it was while observing the slums of Manchester in close detail that Marx and others couldn't help but notice the extreme poverty that began to surface because of it. The child labourers, the long hours and the poor working conditions that workers had to endure. All of which he analysed and argued as being socially unsustainable and an eventual catalyst for revolution.
So, when people criticise Marx they should reflect where Marxism largely originated from, indicating the level of despair experienced on British shores. Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Marx would not be surprised by how incredibly better life is for most of us today, compared to the 1800's. However, would he change his view that capitalism as an inherently unstable and chaotic system? Doubtful. Would he view the workers has still being exploited? Of course he would. And it is that instability and that exploitation that is arguably the cause of many of our social problems today, not laziness or irresponsibility.
It is pretty hard to find anything specific that Marx wrote about disability during this period, but it is obvious that he considered the industrialization of Britain to have contributed at least to an increase in sick and disabled people. And we need to remember how tough and how dangerous many of these factories actually were, in a period that many still regard as being Britain's 'Golden age'. And a period when disabled people lost their employment in the cottage industries, excluded from factory work and subsequently removed from society itself. Listen to the words of Dr Paul Carter of The National Archives, speaking about Britain's golden age:
"In many ways the lives of the poor are still hidden behind the impressive statistics of 19th Century industry and trade".
If this was indeed a golden age, it was a rather tarnished one for the poor and the disabled. Marx would arguably perceive the increasing levels of poverty in modern day Britain and government's treatment of disability as being completely akin to when he was alive. And similarly hidden behind the stats. In all honesty I bet the concept of 'globalization' would not even be seen as a new thing to him, just a continuation of the old. Where Britain's poor are still the unwilling participants in an inevitable race to the bottom, pitted up against cheaper global labour and ever faster technology. So, arguably no different when he was alive.
Everything changes but everything remains the same? That is the one thing I want to get across to the reader here. That to make sense of our present, sometimes we need to delve into our past. And if we are to make any sense of Britain's modern day Conservative party and in particular their attitude towards disability, that may be a very useful starting point.
- 1 - UPS to Pay $2M to Resolve EEOC Disability Discrimination Claims : U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (2017/08/09)
- 2 - Disability Abuse Bullying: Autistic Child Handcuffed to Chair, Traumatized by Greshun De Bouse : Greshun De Bouse™ (2019/03/09)
- 3 - CRPD List of Countries by Signature : Confirmation : Accession : Ratification : Disabled World (2014/09/22)
- 4 - Are Disabled People Losing the Equality Fight in Britain? : Paul Dodenhoff (2019/12/11)
- 5 - Unpopular Truth Regarding Biases Toward Disabled : Michigan State University (2019/07/19)
- 6 - Nut Jobs - Nut Cases - Brazil Nuts: Eradicating Derogatory Terms : Paul Dodenhoff (2015/09/24)
- 7 - Filing Employment Discrimination Complaint with U.S. EEOC : Disabled World (2019/02/14)