An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Co-operation or conflict – how best to tackle injustice?

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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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2 thoughts on “Co-operation or conflict – how best to tackle injustice?”

  1. Martin says:

    Hi Gareth,

    Excellent post, as usual. I was just wondering whether you had come across any scenarios of these groups working together/playing off the position of the others to try and gain more radical reform? For instance, whether the more (scare quotes) “respectable” groups used the angrier voices as a means to create space for negotiation, and even strengthen their position? (A “you think we’re asking for a lot, we could be more like them” angle.)

    Taking a lead from your Communist vs Social Democracy line – and adopting a Marxian hat – this has seemed like a well-worn tactic employed by many “reformist”-minded groups/individuals in previous centuries, i.e. using the physical and epistemological radicalism of others to “sell” their cause to those in power. (In particular, I am thinking of the classic interpretations of franchise reforms in Britain.) In this case, however, I imagine that groups like DIG or RADAR were not trying to prevent more extensive reforms, which they likely saw as desirable, rather than to deploy the “spectre” of angrier groups to achieve what they saw as realistic?

    Just a passing curiosity – I ain’t no political historian.

    Looking forward to the next edition.


    1. I did have a conversation with one activist who gave me a concrete example of using the anger of others to leverage for change, but I’m not at liberty to publish that at this juncture. šŸ™‚

      However, it is fair to say that during the 1990s the establishment had been worried at the level of militancy from disabled people. The government was getting embarrassed by Commons defeats and wheelchairs chained to tube trains; while groups like DIG were complaining that such tactics would make all disabled people look like hoodlums.

      I’ve no doubt that the “respectable” groups were constantly able to say “there’s no way we can go back to our community and tell them this is all that can be done”. Much like the current Conservative Party has been forced to lurch to the right on immigration and Europe – well… further to the right… – in response to both UKIP and the grass roots support.

      In terms of whether DIG and RADAR were trying to limit reform, of course they weren’t. But there were times where they enabled the government to get a small victory, in the hope of being seen as “reasonable” or “trustworthy” in the future. For example, Jameel Hampton has written about how DIG deliberately didn’t try to exploit thalidomide to demand a full disability pension. In the late 1970s, my PhD showed how DIG went over the concerns of the Equal Rights for Disabled Women Campaign and supported an “inquiry” into housewives’ benefit. The Campaign believed they were about to get some harsh regulation changes overturned, when at the last minute the government announced a review (which would take two years), backed by DIG. There were angry words had by all.

      Also, the idea that you ‘ain’t no political historian’ is an exaggeration bordering on a lie. You, sir, are an internet troll. Be gone.

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