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29 February 2016

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.

By Laurie Penny

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. 

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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”.

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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.