This isn’t a current affairs posting. Perhaps because of my age, it takes me a long time to think what I really want to say, but here are some thoughts on where I think the UK is going, and, by implication, why Scots really need to think seriously about whether they want to be a part of what the country will have become when it gets there.
Any government’s policies will inevitably produce winners and losers, depending on the interests of the government and what it believes to be important. In that, the current Conservative government is no different from any other. But there’s been a change. Remember the so-called one nation Tories of the fifties, sixties and seventies? They, at least, made some effort to govern for the many. But then came Thatcher. If, before Thatcher, Tory governments at least gave the appearance of governing for the many, since Thatcher, Tory governments have dispensed with their one nation stance and, instead, adopted an attitude of relatively blatant favouring of the better off at the expense of the poorer. Making the poor suffer for the mistakes of the bankers, while still allowing the same bankers to collect huge bonuses, is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but there are many others.
Part of the Tory government’s plan has been to begin a process of demonising less fortunate sections of society, blaming them for the country’s problems and encouraging other groups to do the same, thus deflecting any criticism away from government actions. Divide and rule: a technique UK governments over the years have been extremely good at.
First they said the problem was “foreigners”.
Foreigners were coming into the country in their hordes, taking our jobs, getting priority for housing, getting treatment from the NHS for free and living off benefits. Foreigners, they said, were the reason why you, the ordinary British worker, couldn’t make ends meet. Foreigners were the enemy. Strangely enough, the view put across by the government, staunchly assisted by the largely Tory supporting media, didn’t feel obliged to mention the foreigners who were treating our sick, picking our fruit, boosting our medical and scientific research and paying more taxes than the average Brit.
May’s plan, so she says, is to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”. The key word in the last sentence is “net”. It seems to be next to impossible to make sufficient inroads into the numbers coming in, so throwing people out, many who’ve been living in the UK for years and contributing to our economy, helps reduce the net figure and so is now considered a good thing, even when it means damaging the communities they’re living in or splitting up families.
Remember Jason and Christie Zielsdorf, the Canadian couple who moved to Scotland with their family and invested quarter of a million pounds in Laggan Stores. Threatened with deportation by the Home Office, they moved back to Canada without even having the chance to sell their business, the only shop within miles. Is this the action of a decent, humane government?
Remember Irene Clennell, married to her British husband for almost 30 years, deported by the British government to Singapore where she had no family, no place to stay, with only the clothes on her back and £12 in her pocket. Is this the action of a decent, humane government?
Next came the unemployed.
We have to distinguish between “strivers and shirkers”, they said, immediately classing a large number of unemployed as happy to continue living off benefits. Supporting the government’s position, a compliant media immediately produced a string of stories in the press and TV showing “typical” examples of those shirkers. Point proved, or so it seemed.
However, before long, shirkers became anyone unemployed. It didn’t matter for how long they were unemployed. It didn’t matter even if they had a prior history of employment. It didn’t matter how much they had contributed to society prior to their unemployment. It only mattered that they were currently a “drain on society”. Shirkers, they said, were the reason why you, the ordinary British worker, couldn’t make ends meet. Shirkers were the enemy.
Then, suddenly, shirkers also included the low paid. Previous governments had introduced a top-up benefit scheme to encourage those seeking employment to take lower-paid, often part-time jobs knowing that they could still be earning a decent income. Of course, whether the scheme was introduced just to help the unemployed, or whether it was a sneaky way of using taxpayers’ money to subsidise companies who should have been paying a proper wage, has always been in doubt. But the Tories managed to find a way to make those receiving top-up benefits into a problem for the rest of society. This was to become the next great Tory idea. In an era of job insecurity, where government ministers are actively promoting zero hours contracts as a “good idea”, we were told that only those who weren’t really trying were in jobs where they had to rely on top-up benefits, ignoring the fact that the better jobs weren’t available, mainly because so many employers were offering low-paid jobs because they knew they could attract applicants because of the top-up benefits scheme. So now, they said, the low paid were the reason why you, the ordinary British worker, couldn’t make ends meet. The low paid were the enemy.
Next in the firing line for government treatment were the sick and the disabled. The plan had always been to show that many of those in receipt of Incapacity Benefit, and other illness and disability related payments, weren’t really trying and were perfectly capable of taking on some form of employment, thus reducing the cost to the Exchequer, the implication being that the disabled were also a drain on society because of the cost of supporting them. Some commentators even went as far as suggesting euthanasia for those who “couldn’t contribute”. Naturally, there was no real assessment made of the likelihood of there being jobs available for those with serious illness or disability. But did the Tory government care?
Work Capability Assessments were initially introduced by the Labour government in 2008, with two main objectives. Firstly, to provide the “evidence” based excuse for reducing the numbers claiming disability benefits, and, secondly, to also provide an excuse for outsourcing another former public sector function to the private sector, though perhaps the second objective was always the more important. The Tory coalition government that followed greatly expanded the scope of the assessments, making them compulsory for all with the replacement of Incapacity Benefit by Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid to the companies charged with running the assessments, initially ATOS, latterly Maximus.
From the start, the assessments were controversial. Often carried out by people with limited understanding of the claimant’s condition, sometimes even by people with virtually no medical knowledge, they seemed to be conducted with the assumption that everyone is fit for work and anyone who really isn’t, can always appeal. As a result, many thousands of appeals were made with around 40% being successful. Of course, prolonging the assessment added to the stress inherent in the process, affecting claimants who were already in poor health. Worse was to follow when it was found that thousands had died within weeks of a “fit for work” assessment, including several who took their own lives as they could see no future for themselves in today’s Britain. Is this the action of a decent, humane government?
In many cases, the result of the assessment involved the loss of a Motability vehicle. Just how anyone can justify taking away a disabled person’s means of transport as a way of getting them into employment, or even keeping them in employment, is beyond belief, but, of course, the government have not been forced to provide any justification for their actions.
Interestingly, it has been shown by the National Audit Office that the cost of carrying out the assessments exceeds the savings made, so not only is no money being saved by the cruel changes imposed by the UK government, but the net effect of the change is to transfer money from the sick and disabled to US based corporations. Is this the action of a decent, humane government?
Pensioners were next on the hit list. Despite UK pensions being among the lowest in the developed world, the UK government had already introduced a plan to increase the retirement age for both men and women as the country could not afford the cost of the existing arrangements. However, one of the first actions of the Tory coalition government was to accelerate the changes, creating a particular problem for women born in the fifties, the WASPI women. No amount of campaigning to introduce some form of transitional arrangement has so far had any effect.
In their manifesto for this year’s general election, the Tories proposed to remove the triple lock on pension increases, increasing pensions annually by inflation in retail prices or average wages or 2.5%, whichever is the greatest, replacing with a less generous double lock, which excludes the 2.5% guarantee. Although the deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party prevented this from appearing in the Queen’s speech, who would be willing to bet that the proposal won’t reappear at the next possible opportunity.
Ironic when you think how the No campaign used the affordability of pensions in an independent Scotland as one of their main arguments against independence.
On top of all that, we have the Brexit negotiations. We don’t know what sort of deal, if any, the UK government will manage to achieve, but we can be sure it will make the country worse off than as a member. In fact, if what we know of the UK’s absolutely inept negotiating stance so far is anything to go by, it will be very much worse. Each passing day introduces a new aspect of the changes caused by Brexit that the Tory government either haven’t thought of or have, but haven’t planned for. Everybody is going to feel the pinch, except of course the very rich, who, with the help of their political friends, will be able to arrange the exit to benefit themselves. Does that mean that the comfortable middle classes will finally be raised from their “I’m all right Jack” stupor to finally see where the country and their lifestyle is headed?
I, and others, have consistently warned that it was only a matter of time before practically everyone was affected by the savage cuts being made by the Tories in Westminster, a government that can’t find the money for the unemployed, for the sick and disabled, or for the pensioners, but can find the money for nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations, for paying private sector companies to run benefit assessments and great chunks of the NHS in England and Wales, and even to help support a government without a Commons majority. Along with the rest of us, most of those who voted Tory are eventually going to be disadvantaged by the changes introduced by the Tory government.
But what about Scotland? In 2014 we had the opportunity to get away from the mess that the UK was in then, and from the even bigger mess that it’s in now and will become in the future. Pensioners who voted No in the referendum and who voted against the SNP in this year’s General Election to protect their precious union or out of fear for their pensions are going to see their incomes falling, fishermen desperate to leave the CFP are going to see their fishing grounds bartered off (again) in the Brexit negotiations, farmers dependent on EU subsidies will see their subsidies removed as we exit the EU, with no promise that the UK government will replace them after 2020, and the rest of us will see a deterioration in our spending power. In the Brexit negotiations, May will likely grasp at anything to avoid years of trading under WTO rules and the same will apply to negotiations with any other country. What chance the NHS surviving a free trade agreement with the US?
But one chance still remains. IndyRef2 We have the mandate for a second referendum and we have a current Scottish parliamentary majority in favour. Are we strong enough to take it or are we still the only country in the world too frightened to run our own affairs? Only time will tell.