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Help for Heroes are political – don’t pretend otherwise

25/09/2014

In what is becoming a depressing series of “charity is political, and if you pretend otherwise you’re living under a rock“, The Sun is using Help for Heroes wristbands to attack the leader of the Labour Party.

If you don’t know about Help for Heroes, they are a charity that provides support for armed forces veterans. Unlike the older British Legion, they have been much more willing and able to use social media and populist support for the military to further their cause. During the late 2000s and early 2010s, they were particularly high-profile, riding a wave of concern over the memory of World War Vets and the conditions to which combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan were being subjected.

Some of this was laudable. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) was accused of regularly sending troops into battle with sub-standard equipment. It was also at a time when general public opinion was beginning to doubt the point or legitimacy of campaigns in the Middle East.

But there was, and still is, something unsettling about Help for Heroes from a political perspective. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the existence of such charities can often be an excuse for the government to shirk its responsibilities. There has long been a campaign – a justified one – that the government should provide adequate support for people leaving the army. Medical and psychological care is, frankly, abysmal; and war pensions and benefits are often sub-par. This is all stuff that should be factored into the government’s budget. If you can’t afford to look after veterans, you can’t afford to go to war. Help for Heroes, despite its attempts to draw attention to this, can often be seen as a sticking plaster. While they keep doing the MOD’s work, why should the MOD or Treasury step in?

Worse, they have been literally doing the MOD’s work. BBC’s Newsnight ran a report accusing the charity of spending it’s money on government buildings and facilities and not on helping veterans and soldiers directly. Help for Heroes strenuously defended themselves, and the BBC’s complaints procedure agreed that their report had lacked editorial balance. But the fact remained that there was a clear relationship between government and the charity. To pretend otherwise – or to pretend that they are somehow apolitical – is nonsense.

And then there was the more sinister side of stirring up populist fervour for “our lads”. Britain has always had, compared to many other countries, a very positive view of the army. Even when individual wars have been opposed, the general narrative is that the soldiers themselves are brave individuals, risking their lives for our freedom. You can – for the most part – grumble about war itself. But the soldiers are untouchable. You don’t talk badly about veterans or soldiers without immediately offending large sections of the British public.

There are a number of historical reasons for it. First, our army tended to win the conflicts it fought in. Second, it very rarely turned its guns on its own people (though the Indians, Irish, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians might want to argue with me on that one). Third, as a democratic nation, our army is often seen as a servant of the people, not as the enforcement platoon of the ruling classes. (The US has a similar relationship with its troops, though arguably with an even less critical gaze.)

I’m not going to try to overturn this view. It’s one, rightly or wrongly, I mostly buy into myself. But I am going to tie this to something which Help for Heroes has helped to create over recent years, and which should completely destroy the idea that these sorts of charities are apolitical. The hysteria over the poppy.

For those outside the British Isles, the British Legion produces millions of paper/plastic poppies every year in the lead up to Armistice Day – the commemoration of the end of World War One on 11th November. Everybody (or almost everybody) on British TV will be wearing one in October and November. It is meant to be a solemn, tasteful and low-key reminder of a generation of men who were slaughtered because of the whims of the ruling classes. And it represents everybody – repeat, everyone – who has lost their lives in conflict.

Over recent years, however, Help for Heroes and their ilk have consciously whipped up the poppy as a symbol of Britishness in the face of… well, who knows. Politically correct lefty feminist lesbian Romanian health and safety inspector censorship politicians, perhaps? As time has gone on, poppies have become more distasteful (and the British Legion has become complicit in this too). It culminated (for me) with the horrendous debacle over whether the English soccer team should be allowed to wear the poppy on its shirt.

Oh, the English. Unable to see how the poppy was a political symbol (how could the commemoration of fallen soldiers possibly be political) outrage was raged out across the internet. The English Defence League (see: fascist) led protests. The whole thing was highly distasteful. England had gone nigh-on 100 years without needing to wear a poppy on its shirt. But it needed to in a political climate in which outward shows of doing the right thing had become more important than actually doing it. Help for Heroes, amongst others, had helped create this storm.

So, to return to The Sun. So what if Milliband doesn’t back your campaign? One doesn’t need a bracelet – presumably a campaign which will directly compete with the British Legion’s poppy appeal this autumn – to show commemoration for the fallen. Milliband’s a Jewish public figure, whose dad fled the Nazis. I think he knows what war can do.

If Milliband has committed a faux pas by not supporting Help for Heroes, we should be worried. Because while not being involved might be seen as a political act, do not for a second think that supporting it is apolitical. I get the feeling that many in this country think the opposite. And that should worry us all, not just historians of charity.

We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do…
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That guy is just the worst. The. Worst, you guys…

17/09/2014

The Independent ran a piece this week on whether David Cameron risked becoming the worst prime minister of all time. Like, in forever, guys. Srsly.

Now, I sort of think this isn’t a bad little game to play. Thinking back over the Prime Ministers you remembered, the ones you studied – the stories you vaguely remember from history class or grainy documentaries. For instance, was Anthony Eden the worst ever for the whole Suez “snafu”? Or does Spencer Percival get the gong for “Prime Minister least able to leave office without a bullet through his chest“. Difficult, hard-hitting questions. And we historians aren’t afraid to shy away from them.

The problem is, while academics half-mockingly weigh up an impossible-to-even-begin-to-quantify conundrum, some people take it a bit… well… more seriously. And without any real recourse to historical method or evidence will blindly throw around accusations about how terrible a Prime Minister was based on not very much at all.

However, the Americans seem to take this sort of thing a little more seriously. There is actually a “Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States” page on Wikipedia. And it’s backed up with data from C-SPAN, ABC, Gallup and more.

They seem to have given the middle finger to Warren G. Harding, though based on his love letters that might not surprise many of you.

So, we could look at PMs and try to rank them. What might we use? Popular defeat at the following election (indicating a terrible approval rating)? Losing a war? Getting involved in unnecessary conflict? Internal rebellion? A lack of concrete legislative victories? Getting shot? (OK, OK, I’ll lay off Perceval…)

It’s virtually impossible, especially for a twentieth-century historian with a self-professed ignorance of any Prime Ministers before 1939.1 So, while the article itself is worth a read, I think, the comments below the line offer some serious history porn. That seedy side of the internet where logic is damned and you can just go all out with the complete lack of disciplinary rigour. Be honest. You love that stuff really.

And so:2

What do you mean by about to become the worst PM? he already is in the majority of peoples minds.

Drole. Very drole. Not very original, given the variations on this particular theme, but an interesting premise. What Cameron has done so far makes him the worst PM ever?

He didn’t win the General Election outright against a very unpopular Labour government, but to be fair he did that while an MP and not a PM. The order of the letters is important. Since then, living standards (if measured in terms of the growth in real wages) have stagnated, the worst such dip since before man landed on the moon. Then there’s the whole unpleasantness over education, social security reform, and not having enough security for the Olympics.

But is any of that worse than, say, failing to secure Irish Home Rule (Gladstone, you muppet)? Or having your army mow down civilians (the Peterloo masacre – cheers, Liverpool)? Perhaps perspective is in order. Whatever your personal views on Cameron, up to now he’s just been pretty bad. But worst? That’s hyperbolic.

However, were he to lose Scotland, he’s certainly in the title hunt. Stay tuned.

Get real you bunch of Lefties Gordon Brown was the worst PM ever.

You talkin’ to me? Probably. The idea of Brown being the worst ever is even more ludicrous than thinking Cameron is. Yes, the world crash happened on his watch, but the clue is in the title – world. As Chancellor and PM, Brown’s oversight of the financial sector was as poor as everyone else’s. Doesn’t excuse it, but it does contextualises it. Besides – despite that, the economy was recovering when he left, and he could (or at least his party could) have formed a coalition with the minority parties. If he’s the worst ever, how come the opposition didn’t win outright? Next.

Has this numbskull never heard of Tony Blair????????

The most ruinous traitor the English have ever had to survive!!!!!

Cameron is a wet fart liberal, but never in Bliars league!!!!!

Strong words. Strong words from a strange man.

Blair will be forever synonymous with Iraq. And yet despite that he won three elections by landslides, presided over the longest period of continuous economic growth in British history, and became the longest serving Prime Minister of the twenty-first century (OK, that last one might have been by default). Still, he is perhaps the best example of a successful Labour Prime Minister.

Then there was the introduction of the minimum wage, the human rights act, strengthening of equalities legislation, the Northern Ireland peace process.

Once again – you might not care for the man. You might think he did horrific things. You may think he sold the soul of the Labour Party. But the worst Prime Minister ever? Mebbe not…

The reason all prime ministers’ careers end in failure is simple. They’re all cr*p.

This internet comment has it all. Censoring mild cursing. Painting all politicians with the same brush. Yes folks, Clement Attlee, who created the welfare state; and Winston Churchill who won the Second World War. Both those men are as fundamentally flawed (and, by association, as great as) as Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan, David Lloyd-George, Benjamin Disraeli, Ramsay Macdonald and Ted Heath.

This may well be the best conclusion, since we don’t have to do any historical research to verify it. Since they’re all shite, they all win. It’s like one of those sports days the Daily Mail hates.

You obviously cannot remember Thatcher.

Well, this one’s a twofer. Not only does it imply that memory is the key component in determining the worst ever (note: no history before c. 1910), it also plays the Maggie T card. Who was, as we all know, the worst/greatest heroine/traitor this glorious nation/run down sack of shit the world/Europe has ever seen/smelled.3

Not going to touch this with a ten foot barge pole. Except to say anyone who wins three consecutive elections, reforms the role of the state and became the first ever PM without a Y chromosome4 cannot be the worst ever. Sorry.

What utter nonsense. This paper is becoming unreadable.

Fair point. And this blog is going the same way. Apologies. I will return to “actual history” at some point in the near future.

By the way – if you have any nominations for the worst PM ever, do let me know by e-mail or in the comments section. The sillier the better.
  1. So much so, in fact, that I named all of my dwarves in Dwarf Fortress after PMs once, just so I could at least recognise the names.
  2. Names removed to protect the – well, let’s call them innocent.
  3. Delete as applicable.
  4. A fact both a) not verified by actual medical tests and b) reinforces the patriarchy’s binary, biologically deterministic views on gender politics.
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Charity is politics – only English “common sense” pretends otherwise

10/09/2014

The claim by Brooks Newmark that charities should stick to knitting rather than politics was greeted with some rather amusing responses. But it betrayed two deeper elements of English politics. First, conservative (small c) Englishmen believe so uncritically that charity is somehow a neutral, apolitical beast. And second, a complete lack of understanding about the history of voluntarism in this country.

In an otherwise typically pompous and Self-righteous piece on language, Will Self made an important point about the English middle classes:

Orwell’s ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman – an Englishman such as himself.

It’s by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it’s an ideology all the same.

Charity is one of those things that falls under “common sense”. Giving is good. But somehow this private act, conducted by associations of individuals in public, should remain outside the world of politics. We don’t even like it when charities get too close to business. Charities – that invisible hand of capitalism – are supposed to be this nation’s uncorrupted soul. Our apology for all that… unpleasantness.

Historically, this makes no sense. Changes in technology have given charitable organisation the ability to reach far more people than before. The rise of state provision in welfare and health has changed the domains in which charities operate. Without an element of professionalisation, it would be impossible for many organisations to operate; and since their work cannot happen without some state or business involvement, it is ridiculous to think they shouldn’t comment upon or try to steer government policy.

Larger national charities have always attempted to influence Whitehall and Westminster, but since the second world war there have been far more active lobby groups. Organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disablement Income Group worked to improve the lives of people living in poverty. Their currency, however, was expertise. And while they raised significant sums to make a real difference on the ground, their real skill came in giving politicians the evidence and motivation to change government policy.

CPAG and DIG were directly involved in helping the DHSS of the 1960s and 1970s formulate the specifics of new policies. Today, Royal Commissions and government enquiries could not function without voluntary-sector input. It’s not just that these group lobby – the government requires them to do so.

Moreover, since the 1970s many have become reliant upon government grants (central and local) to survive. The economic downturn, combined with the hiving off of central services to third parties means that charities have become more and more intertwined with government policy. This has been true of governments of both hues. It seems absurd to ask those involved in providing state services to refrain from comment on said services.

What we have seen, however, is that many personalities in this government do not take criticism well. The Prime Minister has struggled to move “difficult” people on for fear that they might try to oust him, or that it would look like a damaging volte face. A lack of a majority means he has few options. And, indeed, the fact that only a minority of people actually voted for his party at the last election (a growing problem for both Labour and Conservatives with the rise of small parties and declining turnout) means that the majority of people are likely to take issue with his policies. Silencing a sector which has become an integral part of British social policy isn’t going to fix that.

Charity has never been apolitical. It is a political choice when we decide which sections of “the poor” are worthy of our help (veterans? disabled people? homeless?); when we decide what sorts of schools we want to fund (Eton? faith schools? Steiner?); whether to support hospitals or stray cats; global warming or teenage mothers; its all political. To pretend otherwise may be “ineffably English” – but it’s also a lie.

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Indulgences, Charity and Masturbating

06/09/2014

Good. I have your attention.

There was an interesting article on VICE this week about “The Fappening”. For those who don’t know what that is, congratulations – you have managed to avoid yet another depressing internet story of misogyny and internet trolls. But please now allow me to disabuse you of your innocence.

The Fappening is a mix of “The Happening” (a horror film by M Night Shyamalan, rated 17% on Rotten Tomatoes) and “fap” meaning… well, check the title of this piece.

It refers to the leaked pictures of celebrities which were stolen by hackers and uploaded to the internet. But then things got weird(er). As Allegra Ringo, author of the VICE piece explains:

Within hours of the photos leaking, a subreddit devoted entirely to these nude photos had not only sprung up, but acquired over 100,000 subscribers. As of this writing, the subreddit had grown to over 140,000 subscribers. In many ways, these connoisseurs of fapping are behaving in ways you’d expect them to. They’re posting tons of celebrity nudes, desperately asking for verification on others, and doing the math on how much jizz has been expelled as a result of the celebrity photo leak. But these math-and-jizz-loving Redditors also have a surprising goal: to raise money for charity, and in the process, improve Reddit’s public image.

Do read the rest of the article, if only for fantastic neologisms such as “fappuccinos” and “fappingly”. Anyway, the interesting thing is that once the charities found out where the money had cum from, they declined it. It would appear that one cannot buy salvation for one’s crimes. Or something.

This is a long-standing issue with charity and donation. For many rich(er) people, public giving has often been a way of showing contrition, improving one’s image or as a form of “giving back” to a community. “Indulgences” in the medieval Catholic Church, for example, allowed people to donate significant sums to the Church in exchange for forgiveness from sin or bad behaviour.

Simple Google searches for “charity, donation, apology” reveal a number of organisations and people who have made a mea culpa by giving. Heat, for example, apologised to Katie Price by donating to a disability charity after mocking her disabled son.

Then there are the many industrialists in Georgian and Victorian England who presided over the slums and poverty of urban Britain but gave significant sums to erect public libraries, hospitals, mental health institutions and museums.

Of course, not all public giving is necessarily egotistical or an effort to right past wrongs. If nobody gave publicly, it is difficult to imagine how many charities would be able to “raise awareness” of their causes so effectively. Whatever one’s views on the Ice Bucket Challenge, it has certainly been an effective fund raiser, and at least a decent proportion of those involved will have learnt a little bit about motor neurone disease.

By the same token, there is a belief in society on some level that donation to charity is somehow unequivocally “good”. Regardless of cynicism about individual cases, there is something altruistic about the act of gift giving which can be used for political or social gain. Bad people don’t donated to charity.

It causes problems for charities too. They know that part of their allure is their ability to make people feel better about themselves, and (whether they want to admit it or not) they know that others use them to make themselves look better in the eyes of their peers. That is why it is often very interesting to see when charities actually say “no”, especially in times of economic restraint.

Historians of charity and voluntary action deal with these issues constantly. Just not necessarily with so much naked Jennifer Lawrence. The lack of neutrality in charitable donation is something we must always be aware of, while being careful not to descend into nihilistic cynicism. Charities can do a lot of good; but they are often inextricably linked to people who do a lot of the opposite.

Image from Wikicommons
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Beyond the Barriers – New Spartacus Report

09/04/2014

The Spartacus group, which produced Responsible Reform, has just published its latest report on the Employment and Support Allowance.

Beyond the Barriers has taken evidence from around Europe, the results of the government’s own enquiries and some primary research of its own to produce a highly critical report. It suggests alternatives to the controversial Work Capability Assessments, and places the whole system in the context of the current labour market.

You can read the full report here.

I’d obviously encourage the politically engaged amongst you to read the report and spread the word as widely as possible. ESA and the WCA process are highly flawed. Trying to take a subjective concept such as “disability” and apply it to a rigid set of arbitrary medical measures was always going to be an issue. And it has been for a long time.

But since I’m not disabled and cannot even begin to fathom what the experience of going through a WCA is like (50% of respondents said that stress and fear were the worst parts of the process), I thought I’d retreat into my ivory tower and offer some historical perspective.

Spartacus & DIG

A lot of the tactics employed by Spartacus are reminiscent of the Disablement Income Group in the mid-1960s and early-1970s. The use of international comparisons, for example, is very DIG-esque. Back in 1971, DIG’s research into Western European benefits systems was so advanced, even the Department of Health and Social Security didn’t keep that sort of data.1 Of course, the rise of multiple international bodies (including the EU) since then has made governments much more aware of international comparisons. But the idea of ‘inspiring or shaming’ through showing how much greener the grass is on the continent is by no means a new tactic. For DIG, it was a rather successful one; the media coverage inspired the DHSS to set about conducting its own research, and by 1977 a whole host of new benefits for disabled people had been created.

DIG was also keen to use evidence from surveys of disabled people themselves. During the 1960s, there was no official category of “the disabled” or “disabled people”. Arguably, there still isn’t, but at least the government has developed ways of beginning to estimate the numbers of disabled people in the country. Until 1971, the United Kingdom had no published data on this at all. DIG was one of the few organisations that knew disabled people, where they lived, and the general problems they faced. As a result, it was actively consulted in helping to design a survey for the Office of Population and Census Studies.2 Not only did DIG know what questions to ask, it knew how to find whom to ask. Beyond the Barriers employs a similar methodology, building on the analytical work conducted in earlier research projects.

What Spartacus has done with the wider social questions, however, is much more advanced than anything DIG attempted. Developments in disability studies, rights legislation and the faltering economy have all helped; but the critique of the labour market as inherently discriminatory against disabled people is pretty radical. Certainly DIG would have trouble making these arguments in a pre-Thatcher, “full-employment” interventionist welfare state. Indeed, Spartacus has been able to take current workplace initiatives such as work placements and explain how and why they currently fail to produce any meaningful results. DIG did make compelling arguments about how disabled people earn less, are more likely to be unemployed and are more likely to incur extra costs (the basis of today’s disability benefit coverage). But this report takes things much further by making concrete suggestions about how these sorts of barriers might be overcome.

One key continuity remains. DIG was always focused on democratic, gradual reform. It did not demand revolution, or for solutions to be created overnight. Instead, it always pushed for incremental improvements in the level of services, pushing towards an “ideal type” National Disability Income. Spartacus is certainly strident in its demands; but there are a set of ‘Interim Recommendations’ which are practicable in the limbo between the current situation and a more appealing future. This kind of reform has its drawbacks; but it certainly cannot be thought of as unreasonable and unthinking. DIG was able to secure a number of reforms over the course of around 15 years through this sort of campaigning. At the same time, more radical groups always felt that such compromises were more damaging in the long term. This is a debate that will probably never be resolved.

**

So, again, do spread the word about the report. It’s certainly for a good cause. Given this government has already ignored court rulings that their policies contravene the Equalities Act, these sorts of well-presented, well-researched and professional-quality reports are exactly what opposition politicians and journalists need to tackle injustice.

If you would like to contact the report’s authors, they can be found through @SpartacusReport.
  1. Hampton, Jameel, ‘Disabled People and the Classic Welfare State, 1948-1975: Changes in Perception, Developments in Policy’, PhD thesis, University of Bristol, 2011, esp 134-6.
  2. Harris, Amelia I., Handicapped and impaired in Great Britain (London: H.M.S.O., 1971).
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Co-operation or conflict – how best to tackle injustice?

07/04/2014

A few weeks ago, I came across a statement from a disability organisation, furious about cuts to the Independent Living Fund. The Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) coalition appears to have gained quite a lot of traction in recent years through social media. But its tone has always worried and fascinated me in equal measure. Is insulting the people whose behaviour you want to reform really the best way to go?

First of all, a whole bunch of caveats are probably necessary. I am not (yet) disabled. I am not part of any disability charity or lobbying organisations. I am not affected by the closure of the ILF, nor is anyone I know personally. It is not my place to tell disabled people how angry they should be or how they choose to express their dissatisfaction with current or past governments.

As a historian, however, I am interested in the age-old argument about whether to compromise with those in power or to attack them head on. A sort of a Communist versus Social Democrat angle. Does gradual reform lead to fudged policies which maintain unequal power structures? Does more revolutionary behaviour cause resentment and backlash? It’s not an easy question to answer. Indeed, it’s one that the disability lobby has had to fight for a very long time.

When the Disablement Income Group (DIG) was formed in 1965, it very deliberately tried to work alongside the British government to secure the first disability benefits. In that sense, it worked – gradually reforming the existing social security structure to provide for disabled people’s needs. At the same time, the power structures which discriminated against disabled people were not brought down, limiting the sort of radical reform that may have helped even more people in the long term.

The Disability Alliance (DA), created in 1974, attempted to be more strident with the government. Even more radical was the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, a coalition of groups run by disabled people themselves campaigning for an end to discrimination. Over the years it has been groups like DIG, DA and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR, 1977) who have gained more attention from and access to those in power; but it has been the BCODPs of this world that have more effectively argued the political case for why and how disabled people are disadvantaged in non-disabled society.

Quite understandably, groups like BCODP, and now DPAC, have been angry at the way “respectable” organisations have collaborated with governments of all colours – what gave them the right to speak on disabled people’s behalf, especially when many of them are run by non-disabled people? By the same token, the DPAC statement has some interesting language choices within:

  • “Tory government”
  • An “ideologically driven attack on the quality of life of all but the richest UK citizens”
  • “The manifest sadism of a government bent on imposing destitution and despair on the populace”

It’s hard to disagree with the sentiments. (As an academic leftie. Right on.) But the language seems reminiscent of sixth form student activism rather than mature discussion. Of course, this could well be the point – by dressing up language to please those in power, you end up becoming complicit in the very structures you hope to tear down. Moreover, why shouldn’t anger be expressed? Some of what the government is doing right now should drive people to emotional outbursts. But is it a good campaigning strategy?

Ultimately, as Mike Oliver said in 1991:

It is perhaps ironic that many of us spent the 1970s criticising the welfare state, only to find that these arguments were built upon and taken much further by a government determined to reduce state expenditure. Consequently, we spent the 1980s defending what we had previously attacked. In sum, we defended the indefensible and I do not propose to spend the 1990s doing the same.1

With a government seemingly ideologically opposed to you, is there much point in trying to talk to them? If your arguments can be used against you, and there is little prospect of genuine reform, why bother trying to look “respectable”?

This isn’t really a question that can be answered – certainly not by an outsider. But it’s the kind of thing I like to think about. Is there a point at which being “professional” and “reasonable” isn’t so reasonable after all?

  1. Mike Oliver, ‘Speaking out: Disabled people and state welfare’, in Gillian Dalley (ed.), Disability and Social Policy (London: Policy Studies Institute, 1991), 156.
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