A chink of light in an unexpected place

I went to see my elderly parents recently and we were talking about politics – always a risk given that we come from very different perspectives. But I had a surprise in store.

My parents are lifelong Tory voters. In UK politics that means well right of centre. Thankfully they are not too far right, so I was brought up to respect and value other cultures and knowing that fairness was important. But they think being gay is a choice, a very bad choice at that, and talk about young single mothers as if it should be illegal to have children out of wedlock. They think my left wing tendencies are a misguided phase, much like my sexuality I suppose. I usually bite my tongue in order to keep a semblance of peace during my visits.

Since David Cameron became Prime Minister, they have been full of praise for him and his team. “He’ll sort things out now we’ve got rid of the Labour party!” So when my father started talking about the recession, I braced myself for a lecture on why austerity will do the country good. Instead, I heard a different note. They had been trying to find a new savings account, but were worried about the state of the banks. They were shocked by recent events and felt they couldn’t trust the banks anymore. And why is it that bankers are making millions when ordinary people like them are seeing their hard earned savings shrink before their eyes?

As I tried to take this shift on board, my mother started talking about the various debacles around the organising of the Olympics. My mother kicked off with: “These people are useless aren’t they – good organisation has been something this country has always been proud of! How could they get such basic things wrong?” Then my father chimed in “It’s because they’ve used private companies. You can’t expect people to put the country first when they’re busy lining their own pockets! They should have used public services and the armed forces from the start – they know what they’re doing.”

My mother took the ball and ran with it. “There’s too much ‘old boy network’ about all of this. Work goes to companies their friends or their families run. None of them have any idea about real life – they all went to private school, posh universities and walked into trust funds and political posts. They haven’t a clue what life is like for ordinary people!” “My father nodded. “They must think we’re daft if they think we can’t see what’s going on! While pensioners like us watch our income going down every month, these people are milking the country dry and hiding it all in tax havens.”

My father then said something I never thought I would hear. “When it comes to voting next time I really don’t know what I’ll do.” “Well I won’t be voting for this shower, that’s for sure,” said my mother. My father said he would never vote for Labour, and after watching Nick Clegg in action, he certainly couldn’t trust the Liberal Democrats. “But I can’t vote Tory – not after the utter shambles they have made of everything. They’ve got all these advisers and they can’t even think through the impact of taxing hot pasties! Useless – the lot of them!” He went on: “I think UKIP will do well, but I won’t vote for them – too much xenophobia for my liking. And if we’re not a part of Europe, who do we rely on – America? We’re a tiny island that the rest of the world would love to see in trouble – the anti-Europe lobby needs to keep that in mind.”

My mother was in her stride now, as she pointed out something she had read earlier this week. “It’s young people I worry about. These people are being forced to work or they lose their benefits. I don’t agree with the benefits culture, but forced labour – that’s going back to the days of the workhouse. It’s no way to encourage people to better themselves. There are small businesses around here closing every day because the banks won’t lend them money. It doesn’t make sense – help small businesses and they create jobs – then you don’t need what amounts to slavery.”

My father wasn’t going to be left out. “And all this tax dodging – what’s that about? Haven’t these people any decency? If you make money you pay your share of tax – that’s how the country grows and everyone benefits. This selfishness – I don’t know where it comes from – it’s not what being British is all about.”

I drove home deep in thought. My parents will never agree with my politics, but knowing that they are so disenchanted is important. It means that change really is possible. Older middle-class people are crucial for the Tories. Cameron thinks he can rely on them come what may. Well Dave, I have a surprise for you! If you’ve lost my parents, you have lost many, many others. You have gone too far. The bankers, the big corporations, the people lining their pockets – they have all gone too far.

After visiting my parents I usually come home feeling pretty down. It tends to take me a good couple of days to regain my usual optimism. This time, however, it feels like hope and change is a bit closer. Blimey!

Remembering to be angry

I follow Stella Duffy’s excellent blog – Not Writing But Blogging (see Blogroll on the right for the link) and she got angry a few days ago. As is her wont, when she’s riled up about something she uses her great gift with words to share her thoughts. Her point was about it not being good enough that theatre so poorly represents women – women actors, women directors, women writers and women theatregoers. She went on to say that if the arts world (supposedly more politically left than most arenas) is still ignoring the majority of the population, what chance do minority groups anywhere have in achieving equality?

As a woman I am very aware that women are still far from equal. I am aware generally of how poorly women are represented, treated, paid and so on and do my small bit to challenge this. However, I had made the assumption that theatre at least was an area where things should be better. Theatre is about people and life after all, so how can you represent people and life without women? But the main impact of Stella’s piece that hit home for me is that we have to get gender equality sorted out. If we don’t, regardless of laws and regulations, women will continue to be the also-rans in society.

In many ways I have had a very privileged life. I am independent, I have a job, I am free of major personal oppression, I have the right to vote. But equality, or the need for it, has always been present in my life, albeit it in small ways. As a teenager I fought with my parents over them buying South African produce. My heart sang at Martin Luther King’s impassioned words. I cried myself to sleep when told that it was far more important for my brother to go to university because, as a man, he would have a family to support. I was shocked into silence when my all-male colleagues in my first job refused to have a woman in the office, forcing me to work in a mobile office elsewhere. Years later I resigned when overlooked for promotion yet again because ‘people prefer senior post-holders to be men’. I fought against my sexuality for years because I knew how hard it would be to be gay in a small rural community. And I wrestled with God over a church that turned its back on me when I did come out.

In small ways I have fought back. Some battles I have won, others I lost and some I am still fighting. I’m stubborn and I don’t give up easily! But until Stella’s piece gave me a nudge I suppose I had put gender equality on the back burner. She made me realise that I have almost accepted the status quo, feeling that other areas, like gay rights, at least offer some hope of success. I hadn’t stopped being angry but I had allowed it to be a habit, one that I had stopped noticing really.

But Stella Duffy is right. When the majority of the population can be so easily dominated by the male minority, ultimately other equality battles will never fully succeed. Until those with the power ‘get’ equality and the need for it, all issues of equality will struggle. So I have to get my act sorted, stir up my anger and my indignation. I’m back in the battle!

A jubilee tarnished

It has been a busy weekend for some here in the UK. The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years – a pretty amazing feat by any standard. There have been street parties, a pageant consisting of a thousand boats on the Thames, a concert, a special service in St Paul’s and a heck of a lot of flag waving!

I have to be upfront here: I am not a royalist. I have huge respect for someone who, through sheer accident of birth, has had to give up any pretense of a personal life and has done that with grace and patience. But I cannot willingly accept that accident of birth should give anyone the right to rule over me or my country. In the UK that makes me a republican I suppose – but not the kind of Republican that makes the news in the States!

I love my country, quirky and old fashioned though it may be. It has taken me a while to realise that I love this small and imperfect island, but I do. For me being English comes first – an even smaller and quirkier part of this island. But I am also British. And I am European too – and yes, I’m proud of that too.

I have watched the pageantry, knowing that the scenes will become a part of my nation’s history. I have been moved by some of it. I have also cringed at some of it – the awful Royal Barge that looked like it came straight out of a camp lap dancing club for example. Even the Queen, who at 86 must surely have really needed to sit at some point, refused to avail herself of the huge ugly red fluffy throne!

What has moved me to write today hasn’t been the rights or wrongs of the celebrations, but the news that I read yesterday evening.

One of the great songs from our history is the stirring Rule Britannia. There is a line that says “Britons never will be slaves”. A proud statement from a proud people. But this weekend we learned that some of the staff working at the event were unemployed people, made to work there for nothing or risk losing their unemployment benefits. Not only this, they were expected to sleep under a bridge in the open air and then change into uniforms in public – including the women. To me, slavery comes horrifyingly close to enforced, unpaid labour with no choice for the person concerned. On reading that news, my heart sank and I was ashamed that this could happen in my country. I might expect it of some countries where human rights remain in dark ages, but in Britain?

We, the tax payers, must have paid a fortune for the pageantry of the weekend. The gold on the Royal Barge wasn’t fake, for example. The consensus was that celebrating 60 years of service was a worthy cause and, despite my republicanism, I don’t begrudge that expenditure. But surely the few extra pounds required to pay staff the minimum wage, put them up at a hotel and find them somewhere half decent to change wouldn’t have made an appreciable difference to the final bill.

Another issue worth noting was that the police had approved a demonstration by republicans, who wanted to voice their opposition to the monarchy. In a nation proud of its history of free speech and democracy, allowing this protest was right and proper. But on the day, hundreds of the protesters weren’t allowed through to the agreed meeting place.

For me, these two things ruined the whole weekend. They reveal what seems to be a growing separation in the UK between the country we claim to be and the country that our government is making us become. Human rights and respect for all, regardless of class or status are fast becoming theory rather than fact. And as for democracy – we seem to be taking giant strides backwards to a time when the landed gentry and the wealthy do what they want at the expense of those at the bottom of the ladder – the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly. We had a glimpse this weekend of a side of Britain that is ugly, self-interested and anything but democratic. Small glimpses, granted – but vitally important.

We have seen a nation proud of its monarch this weekend. But I am more proud of the rights and equalities that our people have fought for and won – and democracy and protecting the vulnerable and poor are way up the list. This weekend my nation failed its people, because in allowing a small number of people to be treated so badly, we pave the way for many more to follow to them.

The ‘real thing’

Time is running out to take part in the UK government’s consultation on same sex marriage. I have tried hard to encourage people I know to fill in the relatively short and easy questionnaire. But I also know that some people won’t bother.

The fight for equality is a strange thing. Those that fight the hardest tend to be those affected, those that have a personal stake in the achievement of equality. That is natural. But I remember the battles against apartheid – and even in my isolated life in rural England I knew to check the origins of the produce I bought in order to avoid supporting the oppressive regime. As a white girl living in a 99 per cent white environment I still knew that discriminating against someone on the grounds of skin colour was stupid and wrong. My friends and I had no hesitation in waving the flag for equality – and we wept heartfelt tears watching Nelson Mandela walk free years later. It still moves me to tears today. I know that for many this battle still rages every day, but the point I want to make is that people of all colours and creeds rallied to that call for fairness and I believe it was that universal strength that created change.

I know that there are straight people fighting alongside their gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and families – we would not be where we are without them! But I’m also aware that many people, decent caring people who absolutely believe in equality, are sat to one side in this latest battle. They think the battle it already won – they see us happily out at work and home, they attend civil partnership ceremonies and cheer and clap their joy. This is all such a big change in just one generation – they think we have made it. And this isn’t exclusive to straight people – I have met gay people who feel that they are pushing their luck by asking for more.

I have been amazed at the progress of ‘gay rights’ in the last couple of decades alone. I couldn’t stop crying when I attended a friend’s civil partnership ceremony – to see their friends and family and the hotel staff all behaving as if this was a standard wedding was incredibly moving. It was of course just another wedding. It was the normality of it – the acceptance of it and the celebration and recognition of two people’s love regardless of them being gay – that swept me away. I never thought I would see such a thing.

That should be it shouldn’t it? Haven’t we made it? No – we haven’t. In exactly the same way that black people having to sit at the back of the bus wasn’t enough for racial equality, a second-class legal process isn’t enough for gay and lesbian couples. That first couple whose ceremony left me red-eyed were over-joyed that at last the ‘system’ recognised their relationship. But they have found that it isn’t marriage. It isn’t treated as marriage by some of their family. They were prevented from referring to their beliefs during the ceremony – something so important to one of them that they nearly didn’t get there! They talk about many minor things that have left them wanting the ‘real thing’.

Would a straight couple accept an ‘almost but not quite’ marriage? What is ‘wrong’ with me that means others can legally stop me marrying my partner? Because that is the message – gay and lesbian people are not good enough to take this step that is open to everyone else. Murderers, child molesters, fraudsters can all marry. People who have broken the religious laws of no sex before marriage and divorce are allowed to get married – often in the same churches and temples that condemn them. People that can’t have children are allowed to marry, despite the so called reproductive imperative. The only people not allowed to get married are gay people and that is homophobia, pure and simple. Dress it up in fancy terms or religious dogma, it remains homophobia.

I suppose I am making a plea to everyone out there. If you believe in equality, we need you. We need you to fill in the consultation, lobby your MP, sign petitions and generally argue the case. We need you to take a stand, to say that this is just as important as other equality issues. Because unless someone is totally free, they are not free at all.

You can find the consultation here:

First steps

My first ‘post’ in this brand new blog! I have rambled on about why the blog exists on the ‘About’ page so I won’t repeat it here. One thing pushed me here today and, sadly, I think many will recognise it. My father has a cataract in one eye. He is quite elderly, has several health issues and reading and doing the crossword are a very big part of his life. He has been told that he will have to wait until he can’t see before it can be treated. That could be another year or more.

The media have talked about other people in similar situations, many with more pressing need than my father. Age-related macular degeneration is another condition that the health service seem happy to leave untreated until people are effectively blind. Hip and knee replacements are no longer offered to many. People needing expensive drugs are being told they can’t have them, even if the results could mean them keeping jobs or living active lives.

We all know that times are hard and that the British health service isn’t immune to that. But we seem to have suddenly arrived at a point where basic and humane care seems to have become dispensable in the rush to keep the books balanced and give private companies a profit. I’m afraid this is where I am going to mention politics because I believe our government is directly responsible for many of the uncaring things that are happening ever more frequently. A once great health service seems to have been sold out from under our noses by a party that didn’t even have health service reform in its manifesto. And yet here we are – sudenly in a world where Virgin and others are being handed our hospitals.

I know I’m overly optimistic and tend to think the best of people – my father is convinced I live my life in rose-tinted spectacles – but I’m sure we can do better for the sick and vulnerable people in our society than hand them over to the profit-seeking likes of Mr Branson. If things were really that bad – and I haven’t met a single healthcare employee who thinks they were – shouldn’t we, the voters and consumers, have been given a say in the best way forward?

Personally, as someone earning a fair wage, I would have happily given an extra penny or two in the pound to help fund an equitable and people-owned health service. But no one asked me. Even my Tory friends assure me they would not have voted Tory if they had known what was going to happen to our world-renowned National Health Service. As for the Liberal Democrats – they have plenty to be ashamed of, but this surely must be the crowning glory on the betrayal of their supporters. As a lifelong liberal supporter, I’m ashamed for them and of them!

The changes – in our healthcare provision and our benefits system – are only just beginning to impact on the people reliant on them. But I already know that I don’t like what I see. I have tried to persuade my father to pay privately to get his eye sorted out – after all he may not live long enough to see it happen on the NHS. But he doesn’t feel he should pay to leap the queue when others, who may be more in need than he, would have to wait longer. I am humbled by his thoughtfulness! I just wish our government would act with such thoughtfulness, rather than ploughing their ideolgocal furrows regardless of all but the wealthy.