I’ve been following the response among my friends, most of them activists in the disability community, to David Cameron’s speech at the Tory party conference today (a full transcript of it is on the Conservative party website here and there is a BBC summary and video of it here). The reaction can be summarised as outraged, as you might expect, with a hint of disgust at the use of Cameron’s son to highlight what progress has been made in the field of disability as a result of the Paralympics a month ago. Sue Marsh called his platform “Compassionate Fascist Conservatism”, giving a list of recent examples of the government’s and its media allies’ “compassion” towards disabled people. The speech claimed credit for an awful lot of others’ achievements, but I also thought the speech was an appeal to “aspirationalism”, using the rhetoric of empowerment to encourage the moderately wealthy to look up rather than identify with those at their level, let alone below. (More: Same Difference).
The most distasteful bit of the speech was the reference (yet again) to his son, in the context of how the Paralympics have raised the profile of disability:
My best moment was putting that gold medal around the neck of Ellie Simmonds.
And I am so grateful for what all those Paralympians did.
When I used to push my son Ivan around in his wheelchair, I always thought that some people saw the wheelchair, not the boy.
Today more people would see the boy and not the wheelchair - and that’s because of what happened here this summer.
The Paralympics, as other bloggers have already pointed out, did not raise the profile of people with all types of disability, only those with certain heavily policed physical impairments. There was one category in certain sports for people with learning disabilities, but by necessity some disabilities exclude someone from the Paralympics — those which cause physical debilitation like ME, those which cause chronic pain which is worsened by exercise, those which make the body fall apart easily. Some of these same conditions are precisely those which make those affected more vulnerable to propaganda from the press portraying them as not really disabled and thus cheats, or at best wrongly entitled. Most of those eligible to participate in the Paralympics are the uncontroversially disabled — amputees, those with spinal cord injuries, blind people. The very severely physically disabled (such as high-level quadriplegics) would also have been too disabled to participate; their support needs are also substantial and they need to fight to get, and keep, the equipment and care needed to survive.
In reality, the two and a half years his coalition has been in power have seen a rise in media rhetoric against benefit recipients, including the non-obviously disabled. Many of us remember Cameron’s confrontation with the mother of a disabled daughter before the election, in which she asked if he knew how many nappies she was allocated per day (the answer, at the time, was just four). While she may have received more, perhaps as a result of her high-profile activism, others have had their allocation cut from eight or ten to four daily, among many other incidents where disabled people have had to accept this kind of indignity. Locally, councils have been forced to close centres that provided people with disabilities with activities and support because they cannot afford to keep up the services and can raise much-needed funds by selling the buildings. (The council here have sold the building used for Asperger’s and mental health services and formerly for supported living, which is a big building in a very quiet area on a private road, and thus eminently suitable.)
All the people I know with disabilities of any sort feel betrayed by this government and particularly by the Liberal Democrat role in it; many of them are experiencing insecurity in their financial situation, and a huge rise in their stress which some of them cannot easily deal with. Not all of them have families which can bail them out of any difficulty. It is a fact that the present government, in both parties, is dominated by people from wealthy families, mostly products of elite schools, who know nothing about living on an average family’s budget, let alone in poverty. The mere fact of having a severely disabled son does not mean you know what this means when the same happens in a family of average means. The same is true of having a physical disability when you are wealthy, but the fact remains that most people are not, and having a disability costs money, either for you or those you live with.
He makes the usual side-swipes at the last Labour government, accusing them of thinking they can solve everything by borrowing more money both while they were in office and today, and talks of nations “on the rise” such as Brazil, China and Nigeria which “are lean, fit, obsessed with enterprise, spending money on the future - on education, incredible infrastructure and technology”, while those “on the slide” (meaning mainland Europe, obviously) are “fat, sclerotic, over-regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills, unreformed public services”. China, he says, grows by greater than the entire economy of Greece every three months; well, China has more than a billion of population, is run by a Communist party which denies its people free trade unions, and offers them as cheap labour not only to companies run by party insiders but also to companies from the West, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan which want to undercut the wages the populations in their own democratised countries now demand. Britain can never compete with China unless it uses tariff barriers to make up the advantage their dictatorship and huge, impoverished population gives them. This is why there are huge swathes of our own population which have not had meaningful employment since Cameron’s party destroyed their industries 30 years ago.
His speech was also full of aspirationalist rhetoric: “the mission for this government is to build an aspiration nation… rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going … there is only one real route out of poverty and it is work … Not a hard luck story, but a hard work story”. He emphasises “hard work” three times in the speech, but fails to consider that the opportunity to work is a privilege in itself, because there are not enough jobs to go round as any young person who has been trying to find any in the past four years could tell you. The “fall in unemployment” is down to people operating on a self-employment basis doing part-time work for less than the minimum wage, as has been widely exposed in the media. Cameron, as is well-known, has been working in privileged, politically-connected jobs the whole time since he left Oxford, either in the media or in the Conservative Party or Parliament itself. Even someone of the older generation who has been lucky enough to be in work since the 1970s, when work was easy to come by, should consider their position before they lecture a young unemployed or sporadically employed person about the virtues of hard work. Many of us, when we can get work, work hard for long hours.
He talks of wanting to spread privilege, not defend it — when, of course, a privilege is something that is not spread, because if everyone has something, it is by definition not a privilege. To have work was normal in the past (when, as a particular BBC presenter claimed, someone in his street was looked down on for not working), but today, it is difficult to come by and even those who have it find that it does not pay their way. This, of course, is why we have housing benefit — besides the fact that our council housing stock was sold off by a previous Conservative government 30 years ago, at the same time as our industries were destroyed — another way the Conservatives betray their rhetoric on social mobility and aspiration as a con, because if a family is evicted from their house, split up among friends and relatives, they are less able to better their situation, to send their children to college, to look for serious long-term employment (or attend courses so as to increase their skills) instead of whatever casual work they can get, than they would otherwise be.
Aspirationalism means people look up, and imagine that they can be the person at the top, and eagerly read stories of people climbing the social ladder “by sheer hard work” and think they can do it too, when in reality, hard work usually does not bring advancement to most people; it just keeps you at the same level. We have heard a lot of talk from Tory politicians the last few weeks about how the rich should be admired, not castigated, because they “generate wealth” and create jobs for people, and the suggestion that the hostility to bankers in the aftermath of the 2008 crash is all about the “politics of envy”. This rhetoric about “envy” is also part of the aspirationalist mentality: don’t envy their wealth, because you could have it too if you worked hard enough and if you had it, you would behave the way they do and you would not want to part with it, except on your own terms, either. Mix this with an appeal to nationalism and morality and firmly play down economics, and you get the mentality of the American right and its appeal to white, working class Middle Americans who commonly vote against their own economic interests for a party dominated by the ultra-rich who fake a “common touch”.
Aspirationalism is a tool of the rich, a way of ensuring that ordinary people stop looking out for each other and start looking up to their boss and his friends. They call objections to rising inequality “envy”, when really nobody (except some Marxists) objects to the rich being rich; what we object to is their exploitation of ordinary people, their driving ordinary people’s wages and living conditions down, their getting rich through corrupt means, the influence they have through their media and pressure groups that they can use to smear those who stand in their way, and so on. We also object to their attempts to up the ladder when they have become wealthy in large part because of state support, through the education, social housing and welfare systems that existed in the past. Of course, they worked hard, but they did not build the structures within which they worked hard by themselves as young people — the schools, factories and other businesses: either their ancestors built them, some rich philanthropist or businessman did or the state did. To remove these structures makes social mobility a mere pipedream for most people.
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