Simon Jenner

A polemical response to contemporary "scrounger" rhetoric in the tabloids with particular focus on a recent article in The Daily Express by Janice Atkinson

The Atkinson Diet

Liberal and even conservative commentators have reminded us of scapegoat culture recently and it’s axiomatic we reflect on it. It remind us of others, indeed ourselves in the mental health sector. It was the late lamented Gore Vidal who commented back in his 1981 Essay ‘Pink Triangle, Yellow Star’ that if you want to see how civilised a society is, see how it treats its women, Jews and gay people. We’d add the 'mentally distressed' to that.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee is one of many who’ve stated that the gloves are off, that we live after Osborne’s latest budget with the government’s cheerful admission that it’s not about any deficit, that policies are indeed politically not economically driven. So one set of scapegoats - the opposition - is less prominent. The real agenda has begun.

The bizarre Philpott family tragedy, a real life Shameless ensemble of "scroungers" and an abortive scam leading to the death of six children, must have seemed like several City bonuses arriving at once. As Toynbee stated:

What a gift the Philpott case has been, a bizarre and monstrous distraction to poison the public debate in the week benefits are cut while the richest cash in. In a leader, The Times calls for benefits to be paid for only two children per family… children are what Ann Widdecombe calls benefit "meal tickets". …

Swift’s savage A Modest Proposal (Irish famine solved by broiling children) should be revisited. What’s never highlighted in such rhetoric lead by the PM is naturally where benefits go: half we’re frequently told by the BBC to OAPs (and the figures tally when we can access them), especially those unproductive types auditioning for euthanasia; and of course landlords, rent-hikers pocketing housing benefits now much council property’s been sold off to people who often lost their homes in the original right-to-buy scams of the late 1980s and after. In addition as Toynbee reflected - after rehearsing the truths about most benefits recipients working, that our dole’s amongst the lowest anywhere and only10% of it goes on the unemployed - it’s better to focus on stories like Martine White’s:

a thalidomide victim … losing £110 a week and told to attend a work training course… official figures show more than 1,700 disabled people died last year within weeks of being found "fit for work"… The government… rightly sens(ed) that cuts for the frail and party-time for the mega-rich risk shocking even natural conservatives… From now on there will be hundreds of thousands more Martine White stories – while Philpotts are rare.

Anyone concerned with discrimination against mental health is disturbed at the way it’s subsumed into an increasingly negative rhetoric, an assault on all who claim any form of disability allowance being a sub-set of the Scam Society, the "parasites" as some call most of us. These prelude such well-known diatribes against benefit scroungers the PM and Chancellor have gifted our current debate with. The increasing rhetoric of well-primed provocateurs has taken its cue and seems intent on influencing the public further against an imagined horde of scroungers.

It’s striking that even moderate callers on Radio 4’s Any Answers recently pointed out that to be unemployed these days, despite the levels touching most peoples’ lives, was a stigma. Further, two callers added, the public are notably less sympathetic to those unemployed for any length of time, than they were 30 years ago. This gradual re-education away from sympathy to scorn and even ostracisation is as disturbing as it seems systematic. It was given expression by a minor character in Anders Lustgarten’s play at the Royal Court in March 2013: If You Won’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep. Beyond the bracing bellicosity of the title lurked some uncomfortable perceptions. One character who’s finally gained unpleasant government-enforcing business declares that he thought being unemployed would bond him with many others also thrown out of jobs. It didn’t. They now all judge each other. Such successful engineering of social sympathy, even responsibility, is worth returning to.

We can also chart the slide from sympathy by scanning a little of David Cameron:

At a time when we're having to take such difficult decisions about how to cut back without damaging the things that matter the most, we should strain every sinew to cut error, waste and fraud.

On the one hand we have got to ask, are there some areas of universal benefits that are no longer affordable? But on the other hand let us look at the issue of dependency where we have trapped people in poverty through the extent of welfare that they have.

If you can work and if you're offered a job and you don't take it, you cannot continue to claim benefits. It will be extremely tough…. We spend billions of pounds on welfare, yet millions are trapped on welfare. It's not worth their while going into work…. But we will say something else. That for far too long in this country, people who can work, people who are able to work, and people who choose not to work: you cannot go on claiming welfare like you are now.

The BBC reported in flagship liberal quotations: "Child benefit cuts that will hurt more than one million hard-pressed families are "fundamentally fair", David Cameron has insisted...".

A little earlier it gave rise to similar newspaper comments by Janice Atkinson, for instance (salient lexicon highlighted):

…benefit vouchers to fund essentials such as food and fuel – not for those who have paid into the system all their lives and need help when they lose their jobs but for those who are drug users or alcoholics, those who have mental illness and those who have previously committed benefit fraud. …Neither should the state fund uncontrolled childbirth. …When the state funds feckless families there is no limit to the children they can have as they are guaranteed funding. Child benefit should be restricted to three children. A larger family is a lifestyle choice. …If you start to withdraw benefits and instead channel the money into schemes that directly benefit the children then that is a first step to weaning them off the taxpayer. …You cannot imagine many deadbeat parents using benefits to buy a book to help their children read before they start school. …Until it is made worthwhile for everyone to work, to contribute and to be decent neighbours there will be more parasites…

The Daily Express, 8 March 2013 by Janice Atkinson

The tone of others slides from this into altogether harder ones:

They ought to please observe the laws of hospitality and not behave as if they were the same as us. Everyone suddenly found someone in the neighborhood who seemed like a harmless fellow citizen, who perhaps complained or criticized a bit more than normal.. It always happens that when we take some measure against them, English or American newspapers report it the next day.

The excuse they give for their provocative conduct is always the same: they’re after all human beings too. We never denied that, just as we never denied the humanity of murders, child rapists, thieves and pimps, though we never felt the need to parade down with them! Every one is decent who has found a dumb and ignorant guy who thinks him decent!

They’re gradually having to depend more and more on themselves, and have recently found a new trick. They knew the good-natured in us, always ready to shed sentimental tears for the injustice done to them. One suddenly has the impression that the population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies. They send out the pitiable. They may confuse some harmless souls for a while, but not us.

If we have a fateful flaw in our national character, it is forgetfulness. This failing speaks well of our human decency and generosity, but not always for our political wisdom or intelligence.

I’ll come back to this argument and that of the sympathy-engineering outlined earlier. Here’s another discussion on the minimum wage, which underpins much of what "scroungers" can expect, propelled into a benefit-free zone where the rent is out of reach of anybody on the low wages currently constituted even with a minimum wage. The arguments against that - that it stifled employers from taking on in effect serf labour, that a bare minimum per hour rendered the employer bankrupt and thus unable to employ at a ‘competitive’ rate. Competitive that is, with the pittance paid overseas, since we’ve destroyed most of our indigenous industries (Thatcher who died as I wrote this, brilliantly controlled the means of production and unions by destroying both). The ones we have remaining – mostly service - are easily replaceable. That is, we compete with Chinese labour and to a very large extent that of the Indian subcontinent. The difference is that the costs of living aren’t commensurately higher by comparison. In real terms, the pittance paid aboard is more sustainable to the cost of living than here. Here, we’re unable to support ourselves at this rate even as debt slaves. Here are some arguments against the minimum wage:

If it is high enough to be effective, it increases unemployment, particularly among workers with very low productivity due to inexperience or handicap, thereby harming less skilled workers and possibly excluding some groups from the labour market; additionally it may be less effective and more damaging to businesses than other methods of reducing poverty.

Black, John (September 18, 2003). Oxford Dictionary of Economics. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 300.

Wikipedia’s comments on a fixed minimum wage is that it ‘actually hurts the same low-rung workers it vows to protect. The minimum wage, they say, is an artificial, government-imposed value for an individual worker. The real value of a worker should be decided in the open market.’

Other British writers have taken this further of course. Is it possible that the minimum wage will be repealed. The nub of the argument has always been the same of course, particularly with regard to immigrant workers (often used to undercut a local workforce), and the recent arguments for "on yer bike" that social displacement of workers from prime-site areas in London to cheaper housing.

It’s necessary to the success and wealth of Britain. The adoption would mean ruin for Britain, as the whole economy would collapse.

If Britain did not engage then others would. If Britain ceased to trade our commercial rivals would soon fill the gap and the employed would be in a much worse situation.

Taking from their home area actually benefited them. They argued that such societies and cultures were unskilled, uneducated. For example, Michael Renwick Sergant, a merchant banker from Liverpool claimed: "We ought to consider whether they’re in a well regulated plant, under the protection of a kind employer, do not enjoy even greater advantages than when under their own despotic governments". In his publication Mr Edwards also uses this argument: "They’re unfit for other work".

Familiar arguments of course. Well you might have guessed when Michael Renwick Sergant was writing, in that last paragraph, and around the time of the second paragraph - from 1749, when a pamphlet was written outlining these arguments: pro-slavery ones. The first para was an argument used in a speech to parliament in 1777. I’m indebted to The History of the British West Indies (published 1819), and The Abolition Project, for such enlightened summaries, though they’re not responsible for my juxtaposition. I merely removed the words ‘slaves’ and ‘slave trade’, replaced ‘master’ with ‘employer’. Shaved ‘plantation’ to ‘plant’ and added ‘banker’ to ‘merchant’. Naturally as we know, the trade’s returned with slave-trafficking of children and young women, the latter often for the delectation of rich city men who’ve been known to comment sourly online on ‘poor’ performances with ‘surly girls’ - and with unforeseen and unconsidered repercussions on those women. Not notably different to the reaction of wealthy city-made slave-owners in the 18th century.

And after that you might guess the paragraphs about benefit frauds after Atkinson were in fact from Joseph Goebbels, at a Berlin rally in June 1935 and his estimable summary of his position The Jews are Guilty, 1941. I merely had to remove ‘Jews’ from the argument.

This doesn’t mean anything so simple as Cameron or Atkinson being either currently anti-Abolitionist or indeed anti-Semitic. It’s more disturbing in part because given the societal structure I've little doubt Cameron and other right thinkers would be anti-abolitionists now: such right-thinking has to react generation by generation, at a glacial pace, in the face of interfering do-gooders and liberal upstarts like Wilberforce and Fry, for instance (I credit William Hague with a greater sense of history and the sense to avoid the rhetoric and government position that might bring him too close to views that might oppose his admired Wilberforce).

This lies at the disturbed heart of the sympathy-engineering I alluded to earlier, and if it’s not on the heinous scale and pace of Goebbels’ persuasion of most of the ‘civilised’ German populus – or indeed the ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ championed in Milosevic’s Serbia only 15-20 years ago - then Atkinson’s rhetoric, unthinkable 30 years ago, holds uncomfortable sway with many today, in and out of tabloid readership. That’s where such anti-humane rhetoric is forged and sometimes won. It’s done for many vulnerable people on benefits for whatever reason, what the tabloids, BNP, and even Westminster has done for the ‘I’m not a racist but’ position.

That’s one particular political world view. But there is a further consequence. That scapegoating "scroungers" and the mentally ill as Atkinson stigmatises them, covers very large swathes of the population including the elderly or infirm that - Goebbels reminds us - renders us a little soft. So then we indulge in the ‘other’ that has been identified by several commentators: the "scrounger" or "parasite" or spuriously ‘mentally ill’. S/he is ‘other’, a convenient hate figure to rally a party-view and indeed world-view against; party psychology needs its Jews and its "scroungers". It touches evil.

George Orwell abolishes the simple left/right rhetoric prophetic of a time when they would indeed be abolished and of the disappearance of paternalist Toryism (Edward Heath being the last representative, as well as the first to flirt with monetarism). Orwell, writing on Kipling in 1941, commented almost incidentally:

Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.

Orwell’s words have never resonated so closely with those of us looking over our shoulder at those accomplices in Westminster.

Simon Jenner © 2013

Poet and critic Dr Simon Jenner is Director of literary mental health charity Survivors’ Poetry and founding editor of Waterloo Press