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Authoritarian Britain and its Effect on Attitudes Towards Disability

Published: 2016-05-18 - Updated: 2021-07-30
Author: Paul Dodenhoff - Contact: Contact Details
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Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff writes on disability, oppression, authoritarianism and hate crime in today's Britain.


The reform of Britain's benefits system has been central to the Conservative Government's programme of public service reform and spending cuts since coming into power in 2010. Initially in coalition with the Liberal-Democratic Party and now as a minority Government. These reforms and spending cuts have not been completely aimed at disabled people, but certainly unemployed people and disabled people may have been affected the most from outrageously cynical welfare cutbacks aimed primarily at altering what is perceived to be wayward social behaviour. Cutbacks that will surely be proven at some stage in the future to have heavily contributed to the deaths of many people.

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The reform of Britain's benefits system has been central to the Conservative Government's programme of public service reform and spending cuts since coming into power in 2010. Initially in coalition with the Liberal-Democratic Party and now as a minority Government. These reforms and spending cuts have not been completely aimed at disabled people, but certainly unemployed people and disabled people may have been affected the most from outrageously cynical welfare cutbacks aimed primarily at altering what is perceived to be wayward social behaviour. Cutbacks that will surely be proven at some stage in the future to have heavily contributed to the deaths of many people.


Just a few days ago, internal reports from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were finally released to disability campaigners after a two-year Freedom of Information battle. This series of secret internal inquiries into the unexpected deaths of disabled people claiming social welfare, revealed that Government ministers were repeatedly warned of failings in the way vulnerable claimants were treated over benefit cuts and sanctions. Although the heavily censored reports do not draw a direct 'legal' link between the deaths of welfare claimants and the problems faced with dealing with the benefits system, they still highlight a highly obnoxious and draconian system, and one where Government not only deliberately choose to ignore its flaws, but also show general indifference to the deaths that it was argued to have caused. Many of the internal reports focused on the insidious Work Capability Assessment (WCA) itself, a humiliating assessment process correlated with an increased risk of depression, self-harm and suicide (Barr et al 2015).

Disability and Oppression

Independent studies had indicated that attitudes have not only deteriorated towards disability over the past number of years but that public support for welfare spending has similarly been in decline. Certainly, since 2008 there may have been a deliberate campaign amongst Britain's right wing political establishment and its media arm, to tarnish the reputation of welfare benefit claimants, particularly Britain's unemployed and disabled. A highly cynical tactic orchestrated simply in order to 'sell' welfare reform to the British public. During my own research, many physically disabled people reported that they felt public attitudes had indeed deteriorated (82%), with some actually stating that in their experience, most abuse, harassment or actual violence also came with the language of 'sponger' or 'layabout' attached (51%).

However, not all abuse and harassment can be linked to the 'benefit fraud' rhetoric of politics or media, and this is particularly true for those with severe learning disabilities and facial disfigurement, where many abuses seemed far more motivated by the perpetrators going on some kind of 'power trip' (81%) or just simply wanting to 'have a laugh' at somebody else's expense (91%). While we can put some of these negative experiences down to opportunism and perhaps a lack of education about disability, many experiences where not simply one-off incidences committed by opportunistic, ignorant strangers (37%) but persistent, targeted crimes committed by people known to the victim, such as neighbours, friends and in some cases relatives and carers of the victim (63%). In all cases of abuse, harassment and violence towards disabled people, an air of 'oppression' is clearly visible. An air of oppression made up from acts of exclusion, marginalisation, humiliation, incarceration and violence committed towards the victim ( Young 1990: Dodenhoff 2014).

Acts of oppression that are not only seen within 'disability hate crime' itself, but arguably also within the welfare reforms of both Conservative and Labour Governments from the 1980's onwards. Reform that has been stated to be aimed at 'motivating' people away from welfare and into employment, but reform that has arguably increased the marginalisation of disability through the widespread labelling of physically disabled people as fraudsters and scroungers. As well as actively excluding disabled people from the world of employment by deliberately weakening employment legislation that gave the limited protection disabled people previously enjoyed concerning discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace. Not forgetting the humiliation disabled people are reporting to experience through the shameful Work Capability Assessment (94% of my study), while also being practically incarcerated within their own homes due to a reduction in welfare that once helped towards mobility and transport costs (52% of my study).

The Link between Oppression and Liberalism

If we look back through the centuries, disability has always come in for a rough ride, and it's a rough ride that mirrors the traits of exclusion, marginalisation, humiliation, incarceration and violence that we witness today. However, i t is an oppression that is both a product of the past as well as the present, having its roots not only in politics and economics, but in western medicine, social customs and social beliefs. And it's not just confined to the UK.

However, the UK may be particularly prone to oppressing its disabled because of its deep-rooted tradition of 'liberalism' and its associated 'values' of self-responsibility and work ethic. Disabled people of all persuasions have arguably been 'feared' by Britain's Liberalist political establishment over many centuries because they are perceived to be negatively 'different' from other citizens, and primarily by deviating from the sacred values of individual responsibility, work ethic and productiveness. A highly authoritarian approach to unemployment and disability that continues today under the current UK Government, illuminating a traditional but continuing 'establishment' fear that poor people are in essence lazy and deviant, and as such, the 'bogus sick' or the 'bogus disabled' will spread their wickedness to other poor citizens if not rooted out and controlled for. At the centre of this potential malaise is perhaps the deep rooted western assumption that the rich are inherently morally superior to the poor, an assumption that has its foundation in religious movements such as Calvinism, where "worldly goods are a reflection of righteousness" (Lakoff 2010). At the very least, disability and unemployment often signify somebody who is languishing at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and usually languishing in poverty because of it.

Worryingly, and with the growth of technology, Britain has arguably fallen back to becoming an increasingly authoritarian and draconian society. Something witnessed by increased state surveillance and police powers, as well as the erosion of trade unionism, the reduction of worker's rights, and the monitoring, surveillance and application of benefit sanctions to Britain's unemployed, sick and disabled. However, it's an authoritarian approach that almost becomes perceived as normative and therefore acceptable within mainstream society, a normative process of monitoring, surveillance and control of ordinary citizens that therefore meets very little opposition. A process that has arguably seeped into the daily interactions of ordinary people, initially through the workplace, but something arguably mimicked to some extent within disability hate crime itself.

Physically disabled people report that they feel that they are being constantly monitored by the able-bodied if they happen to use a wheelchair or a walking aid, with some actually accused of faking or exaggerating their disability (20% of my study). While mentally impaired people have complained to me that they cannot leave their own homes without some kind of cruel remark being hurled at them (90% of my study), making them feel that they are not actually allowed to be out in public. Something that may mimic the historical, monitoring of disability and mental illness, as well as its authoritarian removal from the community and into hospitals or institutions.

Such institutionalised authoritarianism may also be the backdrop to why Government recently changed employment legislation to make it even easier for employers to discriminate against disabled people, and bully them without much recompense. A small study undertaken by myself some time ago, highlighted that some local employers are indeed likely to discriminate against disabled people, and particular those with leaning difficulties. Many employers I spoke too off the record, felt that disabled people where in general too problematic to employ, being perceived as generally less healthy and less productive than the abled-bodied, as well as being potentially disruptive to business needs. My own simple research project was confirmed last year, when a study undertaken by the charity Mencap revealed that employers across the UK remain uneasy about employing disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities. The Mencap study found that 23% of employers felt that their colleagues would not be happy working alongside someone with a learning disability, with another 45% who were fearful that seeing someone with a disability would upset some of their customers.

So, should we be surprised when a Government such as ours, a Government with severe authoritarian tendencies and renowned ties to the world of business, intervene to further weaken employment legislation? Something that only benefits those employers who have no urgency to employ someone with a disability, or an eagerness to remove them? Particularly at a time when disabled people had been making strong inroads into gaining employment equality under law. For example, Stephen Simpson in September 2014 wrote an article for Personnel Today , highlighting the employment cases disabled people had won in at employment tribunal. Simpson states that " Disability discrimination laws place an active duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of disabled employees". A few examples of these adjustments are outlined by Simpson below:

Providing a piece of equipment"

"West v Lewis t/a Squires Model & Craft Tools- i s a good example of an employer committing disability discrimination by failing to make a simple and inexpensive adjustment for a disabled employee. A shop worker who had undergone a hip operation had requested numerous times that the company provide her with a stool behind the shop counter, so that she could sit from time to time to ease her pain".

Swapping two pieces of equipment"

"In George v H and M Bottomley Ltd - the employment tribunal found that the employer failed to make the reasonable adjustment of providing a van with power-assisted steering that it had available so a sales representative with rheumatoid arthritis could continue to drive".

Allowing for regular breaks to cope with a disability"

"In Woodhead v Halifax plc - a diabetic employee who was not provided with regular breaks as necessitated by her condition was found to have been unlawfully discriminated against because of her disability".

Now, these are just three examples where an employment tribunal has agreed that the claimant has been unfairly treated because of an impairment. Cases where the employer could have made simple, easy and cheap adjustments for their employee, but where a draconian stubbornness seemed to overrule any kind of basic human decency and common sense. Recent government alterations to employment law mean that disabled people now have to pay in order to take similar cases to a tribunal, making it far easier for employers to behave in the authoritarian manner that they are increasingly becoming custom to - and get away with it.

Authoritarianism Versus Freedom

In 2006, the Labour Government's information commissioner raised concerns over Britain's increased authoritarianism, after research highlighted that we were indeed at risk of being constantly monitored within our daily lives, both within the workplace and out of it. With the monitoring of work rates, the collection and use of loyalty card or credit card information, as well as the increased use of CCTV in many corners of our lives. Last year Prime Minister David Cameron was personally accused of showing 'authoritarian tendencies' himself by Lord Kerslake, the former head of Britain's civil service. Cameron quickly and ominously illuminated those authoritarian tendencies when issuing these following words after securing a further general election victory in May 2015:

"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'."

What seems implicit in these seemingly odd choice of words is a distinct separation between society and citizen, and a society that marks out a set of rules for it citizens that are obviously distinct from its formal laws (and which it apparently has been far too soft in implementing). Rather disturbingly too, because if the law of the land is not the ultimate guide of social behaviour, then what is? And who is it within society who will not leave us alone even if we are actually obeying the law of the land?

Arguably, in Mr Cameron's mind, the 'we' he talks about above is not the 'we' of society at all, but actually the 'we' of Government, and a 'we' that wants to interfere in matters that go way beyond the law. An interference that can already be seen in the welfare reforms generated towards disability and unemployment, reforms that are more about ideology and morality, than they are about saving the country vital money. Reforms that are also costing more than they are said to save. Therefore, Mr Cameron's few words are indeed ominous, because they not only set out an 'intent' to govern with an increasingly iron fist, but the iron fist of the righteous few - an established elite intent on promoting and maintaining a Britain that works only for themselves.

It's a sinister 'Orwellian' picture of British authoritarianism where Government of the future will not only tinker with traditional political or economic policy issues, but continue with its attempt to alter any social behaviour that it doesn't like – and by proxy, altering behaviour that may challenge the money making antics of the rich and powerful themselves. A process where acceptable social behaviours are 'encouraged' by the state, but unacceptable behaviours firmly eradicated.

Unemployment is something traditionally perceived within Liberalist political circles as the type of 'behaviour' that are abhorrent to our establishment, caused by a lack of individual motivation and not to a lack of jobs or opportunity. We know this by looking back at historical writing. However, without the hindrance of a viable political opposition, these abhorrent behaviours are now perceived to be completely and easily alterable, and simply by denying access to social welfare from those who are 'undeserving' of it. Hence cynical and callous reform of welfare that is little more than deliberately tipping people out of a lifeboat in order to get them to swim ashore.

Certainly, all Governments past and present have practised some kind of blatant ideological or social manipulation of its people, and our media is particularly adept at manipulating public opinion in order to get us Brits to toe the desired line. However, the decline in public support for Britain's welfare system arguably indicates a public readily falling into place behind Government, which is not really too surprising if they have indeed been fed on a diet of falsehoods and half-truths about unemployment and disability for so long. A general public who also display increasingly authoritarian tendencies as the years roll by - according to annual survey reports. Which is a worrying trend as far as disability hate crime is concerned.

Authoritarianism and Hate Crime

One of the key questions within the disability hate crime debate is why some people commit acts of abuse, harassment and violence, and others don't. Certainly, not everybody jumps upon the benefit fraud bandwagon to bash people using wheelchairs or to kick walking aids away, and not every person is so damn scared of people with learning disabilities that they want to frighten them off the streets. However, we should not underestimate the insidious tactic of creating negative representations of unemployment or disability in order to sell welfare reform to the public, particularly as they paint both social groups as lazy and morally inferior to the rest of us. Something that a few individuals within the UK may arguably view as a valid, green light for showing their own displeasure at such outrageous social behaviour. Adorno et al. in 1950 proposed that thoughts of superiority over others may be the result of an individual's personality type, personality traits that predispose some individuals to be highly sensitive to totalitarian and anti-democratic ideas. As such, Adorno argued that an authoritarian personality would show hostility to those perceived to be of inferior status, orientating themselves to attitudes and behaviours considered to be 'traditional' or 'conventional'.

Since the days of my youth, politicians within the UK have always banged on about traditional British values or 'Britishness', and often without really explaining what these mystical and sacred values were supposed to be or mean. However, the current Government has been on a mission for some time now to clearly set out what these British values are and to reinforce them. And since 2014 these traditional beliefs are now also taught in our schools as part of the educational curriculum. Therefore according to Ofsted (T he Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) these fundamental values are: "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs".

Certainly, there is nothing untoward about promoting democracy, law, liberty and mutual respect, they are things which indeed should be promoted. But do these traditional values actually sit that well together in a liberalist minded society, and do they really paint an accurate picture of Britain, either in the past or the present, and the underlying motives of its political elite? I fear not.

Firstly, the rule of law may clash constantly with individual liberty from time to time. As we saw above, disabled people have the right to take an employer to a legal hearing in order to exercise their human right not to be discriminated against, a case of the rule of law versus the individual liberty of a bullying, uncaring employer. But something now so deliberately undermined, that while such laws exist, disabled people don't have the money to afford access to them. Which is simply a quick, easy and legal way of making completely redundant any law that the most powerful in the land don't exactly approve of. Secondly, promoting individual liberty is difficult when surveillance and monitoring (either by the state or an individual) continually work to curtail that liberty, particularly for the less well-off within society. Finally, democracy within the UK is generally considered to be made up of the freedom of speech, a free press and the right to vote. However, authoritarianism seeks to control freedom of speech and stifle debate. Similarly, we will never have a free media within the UK while they are owned primarily by powerful multimillionaires who seek to use their resources solely to manipulate public opinion, promoting a political ideology that gains advantage only for themselves and their friends. And as for the right to vote? Surely, the right to vote is pretty meaningless if we have a group of political parties who don't actually offer any real alternative at all, just watered down versions of each other's policies.

It's a democracy that is little better than a banana republic's, where we are graciously allowed to choose one rotten banana from a very rotten bunch. An example of this political consensus can be taken from last year, when 184 Labour MPs failed to vote against the second reading of the Conservatives' Welfare Reform and Work Bill. A bill intent on abolishing legally binding child poverty targets, intent on cuts to child tax credits, intent on cuts to Employment and Support Allowance, and intent on cuts to housing benefit for young people. So, not only a Government that is intent on stacking up the odds against people applying for welfare (including disabled people) but the main opposition party too. Is this an alternative?

What we may gather out of this vast political stitch-up is that we Brits simply live in an illusion of democracy and freedom, and not in actual democracy and freedom itself. It's a green and pleasant land for sure, but one ruled over by a self-perpetuating, self-serving consensus and one that somehow manages to divert attention away from any wild excesses (at home and abroad) and simply by spinning an unconvincing fantasy around Britishness and British values. A set of national beliefs and values that somehow convince the electorate how good and superior we are, and by contrast, signify how inherently inferior, evil, immoral or corrupt other countries are.

Another good example of such unashamed political spin was illuminated recently by Mr Cameron's 'unguarded' comments to the Queen about some countries in the world being 'fantastically corrupt'. Comments perhaps not that 'unguarded' considering there was a pack of press hounds blatantly following him around at the time, and a press only too eager to keep the 'Britishness' illusion alive by continually marking out the distinction between the moral (us) and the immoral (them). An illusion of goodness and greatness that quickly fell apart within hours, when the countries Cameron had attacked began to ask for the £Billions of ill-gotten gains that we hold, to be handed back to them. £Billions obtained from these countries over the years via looting, slavery, corruption and bribery, and which are said to still be residing in British banks and property at this very moment. Countries that have also received £2.7 billion of Government aid since David Cameron became Prime Minister. With one or two other countries also highlighting that London is now regarded as the corruption and money laundering capital of the world. How's that for being fantastically corrupt?

Last month, Labour MP Dennis Skinner was suspended from Parliament for calling the Prime Minister 'dodgy Dave'. He was speaking in the Commons after David Cameron went there to defend his confusing financial affairs in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal. A scandal that highlighted brilliantly that there is indeed different rules for Britain's rich, and different one's for Britain's poor. Dodgy Dave indeed.

Gee, We Brits Are So lucky

Fairness, freedom and equality are things continually argued as being on offer for us very lucky Brits here in good old Blighty, but as I have attempted to illustrate, this does not tell the full story. In reality, two sets of beliefs have operated alongside each other within the corridors of power for many years. A simple set of beliefs that govern the behaviour of the rich and another that govern the behaviour of the poor. In a similar way to George Orwell's Animal Farm, where "everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others".

Therefore, some people have to obey the rule of law while others are allowed to circumvent it at will, through the back door; some people are free to do what they please under the guise of individual liberty while others are monitored and watched; and respect and tolerance is not automatically on offer if you are deemed to be of inferior status within society. It's an illusion kept in place by the myth of Britishness and its sacred traditional values, an illusion that conspires to mislead us that we live in a free and equal society, but like all illusions, something that falls apart quite easily upon closer inspection.

In modern day Britain, we Brits are now not only expected to obey its laws, but expected to obey another set of laws that go beyond the law. A set of moral laws created by our political leaders and social superiors, and simply defined as 'doing the right thing'. Where 'doing the right thing' is anything that a power crazed elite decides, and a power crazed elite that hasn't moved away from the values and behaviours of 17th Century authoritarian Britain. For disabled people and Britain's unemployed, 'doing the right thing' basically means forcing yourself into paid employment, regardless of severity of disability or the discriminatory practices of employers and recruitment agencies. For the rest of us, it's arguably about not kicking up a fuss if our freedoms are eroded, if our public services are dismantled for profit, if our employment contracts are easily terminated on a whim of a employer, and if our lives are generally subjected to the daily shenanigans of the wealthy and the powerful.


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row (pp. 228).

B Barr, D Taylor-Robinson, D Stuckler, R Loopstra, A Reeves, M Whitehead 'First, do no harm': are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health? A longitudinal ecological study. J Epidemiol Community Health doi: 10.1136/jech-2015-206209

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. "Justice and the politics of difference". Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press.

George Lakoff. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think , University of Chicago Press, 2010

Author Credentials:

British born Paul Dodenhoff, is a regular contributor of UK disability related news and content. Paul has always taken an interest in disability issues, and writes for Disabled-World trying to highlight issues that don't always get a great deal of attention from Britain's popular media. Paul Dodenhoff completed a part-time Open University Bachelor of Science degree in Social Problems, Health and Social Welfare; graduating at the Guild Hall, Preston, United Kingdom. He also gained a part-time Master of Arts degree in Research Methodology in 2003 with the Open University; graduating at the UNESCO headquarters, Paris.

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