1990s >> 1997 >> no-1109-january-1997

The Greasy Pole: The Year of the Idea?

Nineteen Ninety Seven is European Year Against Racism, a year of “tolerance and goodwill”, according to the grandly titled European Parliamentary Intercultural Committee, who want us to drop them a line to tell them what we are doing about it. This will be good news to what is sometimes called the Anti-Racism Industry, but it should not be quite so welcome to other groups—like refugees, children, the homeless—who may remember years in the past given over to focusing on their suffering. There is no evidence that having a year all to themselves so much as dented their problems, let alone abolished them.

For example, if anything did come out of the year for refugees it will have been completely swamped by the effects of a series of wars which have spawned their own flood of pitiful, terrified, starving people trying to flee from the fighting. Most recently this has been the case in the Gulf. Bosnia. Africa. . . . Whatever may have been done for children there is still the gruesome evidence of the neglect, abuse and violence which is meted out to them—which according to organisations like the NSPCC and the National Children’s Homes, has been worsened by the deeper poverty associated with unemployment. And when those grosser symptoms of poverty are absent there remain the diseases which are avoidable but which flourish when children are neglected or stressed or malnourished.

Health visitors
In a survey in 1995 the Health Visitors’ Association found that almost a third of their members came across cases of tuberculosis. Rickets was found in 25 cases and more than 80 percent of the Health Visitors knew of children who were failing to thrive—a phrase which can cover appalling physical and emotional deficiencies—because of undernourishment or neglect. The health visitors who are at the sharp end of working-class life have no illusions about tackling problems with special years. Their director tells us that “. . . the many improvements in health and welfare are being undermined by the effects of desperate poverty on a national scale”.

Those “many improvements in health and welfare” were based on the plans laid down in the Beveridge Report. A recent issue of the Guardian republished part of a leader written on Beveridge on 2 December 1942. It was. said the leader “. . . a big and fine thing. It will go towards securing for the British people ‘freedom from want’ . . . it will strengthen our democracy by raising the happiness and well being of ‘the common man”’. It is almost ghoulish to remember that now, after all the promises, the dreams and the effort. They were all killed off by the central reality that we live under a social system in which the priorities are the exploitation of its workers, the production of wealth for sale and the amassing of capital. Human interests count only in so far as they serve those priorities.

Our final example is the homeless. They too have had a year apparently given over to eradicating their plight. Not that there was nothing being done about it already. Shelter, for example, was formed over 30 years ago; at the time it was assumed to be a short-lived organisation because the problem was accessible to reform. But that is not how it is now according to Shelter’s occasional reviews, which show that homelessness of one sort or another grows and grows regardless. It has grown in spite of the rise of the Housing Association, with its promise of cheap, good standard, available accommodation but which has been gobbled up by local councils and is now similarly strapped for cash. In some cases homelessness is not a simple problem. Its roots go rather deeper, for many young people prefer to live on the streets because they find there the sense of welcome and security which they desperately need after fleeing from a brutal, abusive or neglectful family. So they too are a part of the wider problem of a society whose very structure, from its basis upwards and outwards, cannot meet the needs of the majority of its people. And what do our political leaders have to say about this? For them 1997 will also be a special year because there must be a general election. John Major is in desperate trouble as his government is revealed, more and more, day by day, in all its impotence and venality—and in the fractiousness which springs from its impotence. If things had gone better for him Major would obviously have opted for an election before this but he has been forced to hang on, increasingly wretched, in the hope that something would turn up.

How is the Labour Party dealing with this situation? If we are to go by the actions and utterances of Tony Blair we would conclude that he has been carefully studying the Conservative Party and decided that, as they have been so successful at achieving and holding onto power, Labour’s best chance of winning an election is to be as much like the Tories as possible. Some of his supporters—like the awful Jack Straw— have adopted this policy so enthusiastically that they have became more Tory, as it were, than the Tories. Straw, after all, has managed the difficult task of making Michael Howard look like a liberal, soft-on-crime Home Secretary.

Along with this ruthless reshaping of the Labour Party so that it more closely appears in its true colours as an aspiring alternative government for British capitalism, Blair has spewed out a copious stream of the most appalling guff. For example his book New Britain is a rich (if that is the word) source of the kind of meaningless ravings which politicians use to convince the voters that they are people with an inspired vision of the future. Just look at a few of his phrases: “It is about giving power to you. the individual . . . the bringing of a country together, a sharing of the possibility of power, wealth and opportunity . . . the problems of low pay and unemployment must be tackled at source . . . ”

By now our more sensitive readers will have had enough. The point is that that is nothing new in all this. There is nothing new in Major’s difficulties, nothing new in Blair’s evasive verbiage. We have to measure the value, the effectiveness of these things in the reality we experience all around us. In the homeless, in the refugees, in the sick and hungry children. The politicians’ impotence to affect these problems docs not deter them; they continue to mouth the same promises, wrapped up in the same empty claptrap.

So here, for the New Year, is an idea. We need a year when we focus, not on the separate plight of a particular group suffering under capitalism’s demands, not on the deceptions of political leaders, but on the real, basic causes of society’s problems and what we ourselves can do to change society from the basis and all that follows.