The state is "doing a Robert Maxwell" on doctors' pensions

What difference does it make if you or I think that doctors get paid too little or too much? They had an agreement.

Last month I re-read Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. A meaningless gesture to an author, sadly, now gone. I always remember being annoyed and confused as a child, reading the bit where Max joins the eponymous Wild Things in mindlessly destroying their own homes in a “wild rumpus”. The casual irrationality still makes no sense to me.

I find myself harbouring similar frustrations watching the debate over the doctors’ industrial action today. Conservative MPs, one after the other, condemned the strike in the strongest and least constructive terms. Maybe you have sympathy with their arguments; maybe you think doctors have a pretty cushy deal. Conversely, perhaps you think there is something to the notion that a vocation the skills for which take many years to attain, which involves long hours and difficult conditions, ought to be well rewarded.

Whatever your position, there is one argument which is almost never articulated. And it is, strangely enough, an argument which is absolutely vital to the system those same right-wing advocates support. It is this: Doctors have an agreement on their pensions; a freely entered into bargain with the nation’s largest employer – the state.

When I graduated, I had options. Career paths which led to expensive cars and summer homes in the South of France gleamed ahead of me. I chose instead to join the Civil Service, knowing that my earnings would always hover between 30 per cent -50 per cent lower than someone of equivalent experience in the private sector. I did so, partly because I knew I would find the work more fulfilling, but partly because I took stock of the environment within which I would function, the relative job security and, yes, the relatively generous pension scheme.

After a change of career, I am happily not in a position where 20 years later, having fulfilled more than half of my part of bargain, my employer can turn around and unilaterally change the terms of the agreement. But make no mistake – this is precisely what is happening to doctors. The state is effectively "doing a Robert Maxwell". Doctors are being screwed out of something that they thought had been agreed and was kept safely aside for their old age. And they have every right to bitch about it.

The contract is the cornerstone of free-market capitalism. Those eroding its solidity at the state level are engaging in an act of utter folly. The very same people who claim to be advocates of entrepreneurship and small business, are reducing the ground on which those concepts are built to quicksand. How would small businesses feel if their customers, after a product or a service had been supplied, turned around and said "I think I agreed to too high a price, times are hard, I’ll just pay you half and there is nothing you can do about it"?

Nothing exempts the state from being responsible for its contractual obligations. There is no excuse for those who tout “market confidence” as a vital goal to claim that the basic principle which underpins it, does not apply to them. There is no intellectual consistency in arguing one day that one should not interfere with corporate salaries and bonuses because these Captains of Industry possess rarefied skills, while devaluing the skill of the person who can restart your heart after it has stopped.

What difference does it make if you or I think that doctors get paid too little or too much? They had an agreement – same as you do with your employer, with the garage that fixed your car, with the travel agency through which you booked your holiday. The fact that their agreement is huge and involves tens of thousands of employees should make it more, not less sacrosanct.

Now, there may be intervening reasons which make the breach inevitable. There may be mysterious forces majeures, which mean there is no money in the coffer for doctors, while there is for cutting the top rate of tax. But such a position needs to be fully explained.

And any renegotiation of such contracts must start with a full admission that the state got it wrong and a plea for doctors’ understanding. Rather than an arrogant shrug of the shoulders and a cynical attempt to make people fighting for what is legally theirs look bad in the press. A change of administration does not vitiate the state’s contractual responsibilities.

So, those Wild Things peddling their views from television studios to Whitehall lawns, need to take a step back and assess, truly assess, the effects of their attitude on future recruitment, on consumer spending, on market confidence and on the free-market capitalism which they worship. Truly assess the consequences of their position. Because their true position is that a contract with the UK’s biggest employer, biggest buyer of goods, biggest procurer of services, is not worth the paper on which it is written.

Doctors. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.