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!

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.

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.