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The “Clean for the Queen” campaign is Tory Britain at its worst

Behind the usual monarchist deference is an insidious attempt to redefine poverty as a moral choice, rather than a result of the government’s austerity.

Forelocks at the ready, peasants. It’s time to Clean for the Queen. In honour of Her Majesty’s birthday, Tory politicians and major retailers have come together to encourage all good citizens to clean up their neighborhoods next weekend. Around the country, purple billboards, formatted in the style of those cloyingly awful “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, urge the underclass to “spruce up your streets! vacuum your villages!”, as if Hyacinth Bouquet had suddenly been appointed Supreme Leader. The jolly press releases fail to mention that the reason the neighbourhoods got dirty in the first place is that the council cleaners were fired. Major sponsors of the event include McDonalds, Greggs, Costa and Kentucky Fried Chicken, who are hardly irresponsible for the mess. 

Worse still, someone has persuaded a number of Tory ministers to dress up as day-labourers, complete with litter-pickers, gurning in purple uniforms. No Tory minister should be allowed to pose in public with household cleaning items. Have they forgotten the prime minister’s many eye-watering attempts to look comfortable in a high-vis jacket? Have they forgotten Boris Johnson’s appalling photo-op after the London riots, waggling a broom like a fascinating tribal artefact from a conquered nation?

The Mayor of London is graciously providing free binbags for all those lucky serfs who might want to have a go at cleaning the high streets while they wait for the food banks to open. There will presumably be songsheets on offer so that the formerly feckless youth of Cardiff and Coventry can perform sprightly choruses as they scrub, and choreographers to co-ordinate a marvellous broom-dance. Bono can do a solo as the unquiet ghost of Nye Bevan. 

 It’s a fantasy right out of Dickens – as long as you’ve not actually read Dickens and base your conception of British society entirely on the muppet musical remakes, which have a whole lot less violence and disease and a whole lot more singing penguins. 

In a week when more cuts to public services and welfare benefits were announced in the wake of troubling economic forecasts, all the state has to offer is a roll of free binbags and the exhortation to scrub and smile.  It has been some years since the Conservative party quietly dropped “We’re All In This Together” as a campaign slogan. Let’s be realistic: this is Tory Britain, and the only thing we’re all in together is the rain. It just won’t do to talk about money, particularly when you’re busy gutting and skinning the welfare state so you can decorate your office with its pelt.  Gone is the embarrassing pretence at cross-class solidarity: these days, it’s all about standing up straight and remembering all the verses to “God Save The Queen”, even the dodgy one about slaughtering Scotsmen.  We don’t talk about money, and who has it. That would be common. 

Last week, Cameron’s snug mask of patrician concern slipped when he mocked the leader of the opposition for looking, essentially, like a pleb. Jeremy Corbyn was trying to discuss cuts to the health service in Cameron’s own constituency when the prime minister suggested that instead of yammering on about the NHS the Labour leader ought to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”.

This plea for decorum came, lest we forget, from a man who recently had to publicly deny having had sex with a dead pig. But the wealthy and their children may do as they please: nobody is scouting around Eton for volunteers to Clean for the Queen. 

If it’s common to talk about money, it’s downright oikish to talk about poverty. The Queen doesn’t want to hear that nonsense. In fact, the government is halfway to winning its battle to redefine child poverty as a measure of something other than the actual amount of money that families actually have. 

Previously, the government has had to deliver reports to parliament about how many children were poor, but those figures were getting embarrassing, so Iain Duncan Smith has been fighting for some time to remove that requirement. The state will still publish the figures but will no longer have to formally tell MPs how many kids are living below the poverty line, which is set at 60 per cent of the median income. Instead, the DWP will be allowed to report on other things, like whether the children’s parents are employed, which is convenient, as thanks to wage suppression you no longer have to be out of work to be flat broke. New standards of acceptable child deprivation will presumably include how adorable and well-mannered the little ragamuffins are, and whether they’ve wiped their noses and learned to recite the names of every former colony of the British Empire before they get their evening gruel. What does it matter if these children live in poverty, as long as they keep Christmas in their hearts? 

At least they can be kept busy mopping for the monarchy. Most of the organisations getting involved in the scheme appear to be schools and scouting groups, which is interesting, as I thought we had laws about child labour. But cleaning is an onerous and unhealthy job that people generally require a salary to do. 

I’m not sure if anyone has explained this to Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Iain Duncan Smith. I’d like to know, in fact, when any of these men last cleaned anything – their desks, their suits, their financial records, anything at all. They may actually believe that dirt magically appears and disappears in proportion to one’s moral uprightness, measured, of course, by wealth. The right sort of people have their dusting and polishing done by the staff or, in a pinch, the wife. Recently, cleaners at the Foreign Office were disciplined after demanding less insulting wages. It must have come as a great surprise to the ministers there that government departments are not, in fact, tidied by elves while good Tories are tucked up in their beds dreaming of lucrative private sector contracts to come.

Back in the real world, the reason Britain has a problem with litter because local councils have been forced to cut their budgets by up to 40 per cent in two years, for no good reason other than to fund Tory tax breaks for the same companies that are sponsoring “Clean for the Queen”. Councils have had to choose between closing their child crisis centres, shutting down libraries, or firing half their cleaning staff. Many of the “grot spots” that the beleaguered Clean For The Queen social media team has chosen to shame in public are untidy precisely because they’ve had to get rid of the people who were actually employed to tidy up. 

Now those same people are being asked to do the work for free. In 2014 John McArthur, a 59-year-old worker from Motherwell, was made redundant from his minimum wage job at a local recycling centre – and then forced to do the same job for free as part of a “Community Work Placement” designed to motivate the unemployed to get back to work.

The point of all this is to redefine poverty as a moral choice, a lapse of judgement, as if the soaring numbers of people sleeping on the streets have done the equivalent of leaving the house without their trousers on. They have simply forgotten to be rich. Similarly, the sick and disabled people whose benefits have now been cut to just £73 pounds a week have not tried hard enough to not have cancer, or broken bones, or bipolar disorder. If having to decide between starving and freezing doesn’t motivate the surplus population to miracle acts of self-healing, imagine how much more gumption they’ll have when we replace benefits with small packets of Disney stickers, motivational quotes and maybe some collectible plastic figurines of the royal family where you can pull a string and have the Duke of Edinburgh ask you why you haven’t got a job yet.

The poor don’t need money, they need a better attitude. Recently Frank Field, who is a Labour MP in the same way that Donald Trump is a man of the people, opined in the Telegraph that children should be required to sit through lessons in how to avoid poverty – not by joining a union and agitating for humane wages, but by getting married. This advice, aimed at young girls, would have appeared retrograde in the 1950s, but in today’s Britain it is acceptable for a politician to declare that marriage must be prioritised as “the great civilising force on males”. “Of course no one should advocate the continuation of a partnership that involves mental or physical abuse,” writes Field. “But the possibility of such abuse must not be used to promote single parenthood.”

Motivation is not the problem. People are not, on the whole, unemployed or underemployed because they are lazy or feckless or make poor choices. People are unemployed because there are fewer jobs available, and those that remain pay far less than they once did as the cost of living continues to rise. This is not happening by chance, but as a direct result of government cuts that are destroying the public services ordinary people rely on in the name of “balancing the books”. The books in question, if you’re wondering, have roundly failed to balance.

It’s all about incentives. The poor need to be incentivised to work, even when there are few jobs available and fewer still that pay a liveable wage. By the same logic, if we simply stop providing chemotherapy to cancer patients, they will be incentivised to heal themselves. If we stop teaching science in schools, our children will be incentivised to become astrophysicists. If we drive a hundred thousand disabled people into the sea they will be incentivised to grow gills and fins. I expect the white paper from the Department for a Work and Pensions within weeks. Oddly, the well-off do not seem to require negative incentives, but positive ones – unlike the feckless poor, the flighty rich must be tempted with government handouts and soft, welcoming tax deals unless we want them to flee the capital, which would be a disaster for reasons explained with mumbling and a patrician handwave.

If all that makes the difference between penury and survival is the right incentives, then poverty is not an artefact of inequality, but a moral choice. If social breakdown comes about not because of austerity but because of falling standards, then people shouldn’t blame their bosses or elected leaders for their cramping stomachs and freezing homes. Instead, they get to blame themselves, and blame each other. Soldier on in shame and exhaustion, as long as you don’t get so depressed that you can’t work.

Britain is a dirty place, but the grime is where it’s always been – below the surface, settling into the cracks in sixty million anxious human hearts. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the Queen, the answer, of course, is nothing at all. The Queen is ninety years old. She does not care if the bins get taken out, and neither does the Cabinet, as long as we’re not out there actively upending wheelie bins in disgust. The Queen’s birthday is merely a convenient occasion for another cloying appeal to this country’s most subservient, cap-doffing instincts: don’t make a fuss. Sit up straight, peasants. Put on a proper suit and tie. Don’t talk about poverty. Don’t talk about inequality. Stiffen that upper lip while you sing the National Anthem. Polish your front step till it shines. Scrub and smile. 

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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.


City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.


Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.


Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue