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Laurie Penny on a subversive idea: compassion

Britain is being refashioned into a nation which believes that helping the needy is morally and fiscally wrong.

It's a freezing January morning, and "Cuts Kill" has been written in bloody letters across Regent Street. Disabled activists in wheelchairs have lashed themselves together across the road with thick chains and D-locks, blocking the road.

This is not the vision of human need that the Conservative Party had in mind when it began to extend Labour's welfare cuts. There is nothing abject or cringing about these disabled people, although many of them have put their health at grave risk to come here today to protest against the Welfare Reform Bill. Provisions in the bill will make disabled people "lose our homes, lose our jobs and lose our care payments", according to one young woman in a wheelchair who holds up a sign saying: “No more meals on wheels? Eat the Rich!" Tiny Tim this ain't.

The way we talk about welfare is changing. Debate surrounding the bill has focused largely on whether or not it is moral to allow a tiny minority of families to receive £26,000 or more in state benefits - overlooking how housing benefit, which makes up most of this figure, goes straight into the pockets of private landlords.

Last week during a radio phone-in, I spoke to a woman whose voice shook with rage at the idea that immigrant families might be receiving tens of thousands of pounds in payments when her own benefits are due to be cut. It's a callous but effective strategy: turn the anger of the working poor against the non-working poorer, diverting attention from the biggest redistribution of wealth to the very rich in a generation.

At the protest, officers from the Metropolitan Police - who have a less-than-spotless record when it comes to dragging peaceful protesters from their wheelchairs - are looking nervous at the prospect of arresting 15 wheelchair users in full view of the national press.

Lee, 32, who has cerebral palsy and receives Disability Living Allowance, is worried about losing his livelihood. "It could happen to anybody," he says, shifting himself in his chair, which is chained to a line of others across the street. "They don't realise that, by doing this, it means a lot of people will go into decline and a lot might even lose their lives."

Hear no evil

Unfortunately the government does realise but it chooses to ignore the evidence. Official consultations on disability benefits advised that forcing the disabled to hunt for non-existent jobs they can't physically handle in the middle of a recession is no way to "make work pay". "It's about saving money, basically," Lee says.

Lee is wrong on that count. Across Regent Street, UK Uncut activists hold a banner stating "Tax Avoidance £25bn; Welfare Cuts £4.5bn". There are quicker, easier ways to pay down the deficit than throwing the disabled and mentally ill out of their homes and communities, and this government knows that full well. Instead, the reforms are about changing our political culture to one in which basic compassion no longer plays a part.

Britain is being refashioned into a nation which believes that helping the needy is morally and fiscally unaffordable - and no sum of money saved is worth that shame.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.