I had a teacher for A-Level General Studies who did little to dispel the stereotype of the left-leaning educationalist. Hairy about the face, sandaled about the feet, he was an earnest and engaged fellow. Archetypal Guardianista though he may have seemed to be, my strongest memory of him was his telling us that he only ever read newspapers with a right-wing slant, the better to whet his convictions by testing them against those of others.
I think of him often on Twitter, the beauty and the danger of which is that, with its infinitely customisable timeline, it allows one to slip into a groupthink mentality, where opposing views seem those of a minority.
So it was that I have seen nothing but unconditional disgust and condemnation at the foul comments made by Cornwall councillor Collin Brewer. I struggle even to paraphrase what he said, so abhorrent and callous were his stigmatising of children with disabilities as “burdens” and the parallels he drew with putting down animals.
Incredibly, this all came to light prior to the recent local elections; having previously apologised and indicated that he would not stand, Mr Brewer has, in fact, been re-elected to his position – although he faces continuing pressure to resign. From where I stand, it seems inconceivable that anyone would vote for him, but as tempting as it would be to dismiss his supporters out of hand, I think there is more at issue here than an offensive lone voice on the fringes.
A part of me thinks that it speaks volumes that Mr Brewer felt able to make his comments in the first place, and did not suffer an immediate and career-ending backlash as a result. His remarks, after all, are in many ways a logical extension of the current public debate in which financial cost and contribution trump all. Increasingly, we seem to be hearing, you are entitled only to take out what you have put in. The hard-working taxpayer is encouraged to believe that s/he is central to this policy and that changes to the social security system are designed to shake off an overwhelming burden of spongers, scroungers and shirkers.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published earlier this week indicated a sharp rise in people believing, essentially, that poverty is caused by the poor; for whatever reason, the fabled lazy, feckless, fraudulent recipient of benefits is becoming an ever-more entrenched figure in public opinion.
Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that people may start to be seduced by what comes across as “tough but fair” hard talking from the likes of Mr Brewer? After all, the Government is considering changes to welfare which would mean a cap on child benefit after a family’s first two children, leaving a stark choice for those who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant with a third. Is it such a leap to extend the same thought process to the sick, the ill and the dependant? I would say not, but that forcing people to make decisions in a context of withdrawn funding and hate-filled talk of “burdens”, is the stuff of nightmares.
We are encouraged in so many ways to believe that we are agents of our own fate. We are consumers of all sorts, not least of services once seen as simple entitlements: healthcare, education, even policing. Personally I remain convinced that this is essentially an illusion of choice; worse, that it breaks the link of obligation which underlies the social contract of taxes paid and services received and tends to drive those with sufficient resources to seek elsewhere and resent what is perceived as subsidies to those undeserving and less well-off.
I have another problem with this narrative of choice. If we are entirely free to choose the shape and substance of our lives, then – as I am trying to inculcate, with little success, into my children – we are wholly to blame when things go wrong. There is little room for the concept which probably has an impressive name in German philosophy, but which is generally known as “shit happens”. Prudence and precaution can only go so far in warding off misadventure, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. It may be seductive to look at anyone requiring a greater than average level of support and blame their choices for leading them to the position they’re in, but it is illogical, inhumane and deeply short-sighted.
Suspicion and fear are innate in all of us, of course, but pointing the finger at others makes us no more secure. I want those with public voices to say, loudly and often, that human lives should never have to compete on balance sheets with public toilets or rubbish collections. Perhaps the most chilling thing about this is the idea that Mr Brewer thought he might be praised for saying the unsayable, for speaking out bravely for reason and fact against wishy-washy emotion. No, no and no. This isn’t about difficult choices. This is no choice at all.
Beyond this, though, I want to hear them countering the myths and facing down the lies about welfare spending, not allowing them to become received wisdom. I don’t want my children to grow up in a society where cash is hoarded under the mattress and the door is never opened to those in need. A lot of decent, good people are being won over by this brand of hard talk – and it terrifies me.