Greasy Pole: The Thick of It

Abundant evidence of how a grateful nation unstintingly cares for its military heroes as they return, too often less than complete, from the battlefields has been supplied by Defence Minister Kevan Jones. Anyone who in combat in Afghanistan is unlucky enough to lose their penis – shot off, blown to pieces, burnt away – can put in a claim for compensation which might amount to £9,000. As expected of a properly prudent minister of the crown, Jones made it clear that such generosity applies only when the entire organ is lost; in cases of lesser damage, when “partial use” remains, the payment will be something under £3,000. Naturally such claims will have to originate with the appropriate form, signed and witnessed by a suitably qualified person. No doubt supporting evidence will be required. Then the claim will be processed through an appointed panel of specialists in the regular stream of applications for council tax relief, job seekers allowance, home carers…

We have., in fact, been here before. After the guns had fallen silent in 1918 the then government did their best to live up to the infamous Lloyd George promise about post-war Britain being a Place Fit For Heroes To Live In by making payments to survivors of the horrors who had left bits of themselves out on the battlefields. Perhaps Kevan Jones learned something from this for the 1918 compensation was carefully calculated with an appropriate scale of payments – so much for a missing hand, a bit more for an arm above the elbow, more again for above the elbow and the same kind of arrangement applying to missing legs. It was thought prudent to make an exception for anyone with a mangled head or face – nothing would be paid for any damage above the neck. This was done in accordance with regulations made in the safety of the Commons to be implemented by bureaucrats in their offices; in neither place was anybody likely to lose any limbs. It conformed to sound actuarial principles, taking into account that a lot of injuries “above the neck” would effectively deprive a potential claimant of any lasting interest in compensation, or of the need for any recognition of their plight other than a place on the local war memorials which were already being designed up and down the country (Edwin Lutyens had quickly drawn on the back of an envelope a rough sketch for a temporary Cenotaph, made of wood and plaster, for London). But never mind – it was, after all, the thought that mattered.

A natural response would be, in bewildered rage, to consign the episode to a file marked Madness. Except that this does nothing towards unravelling the matter. We are compelled to deal with a social system which does not just tolerate the insanity of war but actually nurtures it as the most rational available way of purging itself of certain problems. As the Chilcott enquiry into the Iraq war – there have already been two others, both of them predictably unrewarding and dishonest – is already informing us, capitalism needs to be a society of conflicts, driven by a momentum of its own which is lubricated by a disregard of inconvenient facts. Infuriatingly, we need to accept that the mass of capitalism’s people – who fight in the wars, willing to be maimed and killed – readily comply with and justify the entire disreputable chaos. It is almost as if nothing more is expected of a system which shows itself capable of massive human progress were it not hampered by the priorities of property; all that is demanded is that the dead are disposed of with due ceremony and the wounded are compensated according to an official scale.

And for all of this there is always the essential machinery of government – that organ which millions of its subjects vote for under the impression that thereby they are ensuring a benevolent eye will watch over their welfare. Supposedly fulfilling this function are the ministers and secretaries of state on one level after another down to the achingly ambitious bag carriers and beyond, whose function persuades them to be in love with the protection of their protocol, its systemic committees and pressure groups where back-stabbing is an essential way of life. One who was until recently employed in the service of this odious machinery – so devotedly that when he retired he was rewarded with a gleaming medal to hang on his chest from a dazzling ribbon – needs very little encouragement to lift a corner of the shrouded mysteries of what is called democratic government. A minister’s special adviser by trade, he recalls that if his boss was being harassed by too persistent a straggle of complainants his confidential advice would be to surprise them with an offer of a personal hearing when he could make any needful promises, to be ignored once the other side had gone trustingly on their way. This kind of tactic is possible because a government has a more enduring energy than the most stubborn of protesters, whose pre-occupation must be with getting their living.

Some flavour of this nauseous brew was the theme of the recent TV series The Thick Of It – the conflicting ambitions, the manipulation, the treachery…We should not be unduly influenced in our response to the series by it being too flagrantly a caricature, particularly in the odious spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker (who will probably end up in the House of Lords).Tucker had to learn to communicate through unrelenting abuse to defend and assert himself and his career; it was just that he was more determined, more colourful, than the others. The affairs of capitalism must be conducted to meet its nature as a society – as abrasively as demanded by the privileges of class monopoly. It is in this process that predators such as Malcolm Tucker come to the surface.. And a lot more – the wars, the contemptuous treatment of the victims, the deception and cynicism with which it is all defended. Nothing can compensate us for this.


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