Saturday 3 February 2007
Deborah Orr: If exceptions can be made for the very rich, do the same for the very poor
Blair himself has done much to encourage the demonisation of those who are excluded
Funny old Tony Blair. Even now, bogged down as he is in the detritus of his decade-long premiership, he's still quite clearly convinced that he's got plenty more to do. He was resigned to, rather than chastened by, the fact that his interviewer yesterday morning on the radio, John Humphrys, was under an obligation to ask him to defend his past rather than chat merrily about all his new plans. Yet one or two of the things he managed to say, in between lengthily expounding on why he wasn't going to be saying anything, suggested that if he was going to do it all again, then he might do one or two things differently.
I was particularly intrigued by his comments about the failure of Labour to promote egalitarianism, and his comments about the part of the population who have remained stubbornly marooned in the underclass. "The trouble with the world in which we live today, it's like with companies which are highly mobile, if you take a few rich or wealthy individuals who live in London and you go and clobber them with taxation, I'm afraid you're not actually going to get money; they'll just move elsewhere.
"I don't think that's what's keeping back social mobility. I think what does keep it back is the fact that as opposed to having, when I was growing up, a large working class and then a middle class - people understood the concept in a very clear way - I think what you've got today is maybe ... 10 per cent at the bottom who find it really, really hard to break out of that, and I think it requires different policies for them. In other words, you can put more money into education; you can create the New Deal; you can put more money into inner city regeneration, but I think for some of these who are there and have very little opportunity at all, I think you need different policies for them."
What might these "different policies" be? Thus far, Blair's government, initially hampered by the facile idea that "lifting people out of poverty" was going be a matter of employing the simple technique of being nice to them, quickly became cynical about the idea that this intractable rump of unattractively useless citizens could really be helped at all. There has been a lot of talk over the years about combating social exclusion, but at every turn the Government has settled firmly for the stick rather than the carrot, seemingly unaware that punishing people for their shortcomings was no more effective than patronising them. The tricky situation at the Home Office now, whereby there's just no room in prisons for dumping the most troublesome elements of the 10 per cent, is a direct result of that failure to formulate "different policies".
Yet even before these different policies can be drawn up, there has to be a huge shift in attitude. Blair himself has done much to encourage the demonisation of those who are excluded and his finger-wagging promotion of Asbo culture. But all he has to do is look at what he says about the very wealthy, and turn it in its head.
The very wealthy are excused from adhering to grand ideas about decency and citizenship, because their economic contribution is just too valuable for them to be pursued for their recalcitrance. In Britain, modest earners are taxed to the hilt. But it is well known that for the very rich there is hardly a better country in the world for getting round such tiresome obligations. Unattractive and unfair as the maintenance of that status quo may be, it is actually a realistic view.
But I'm afraid that much the same exception has to be made for the very poor as well. Haranguing and threatening them to be decent citizens aware of their social obligations is as counterproductive as it is in the case of the wealthy. They don't move abroad to show their anger at such demands. Instead they do what they can to wreck the place they are in already. But as far as the general well-being of the country is concerned, this is every bit as damaging.
Blaming the poor, the ignorant, the mentally unhealthy, the depressed, the addicted, the fat, the alcoholic, the angry, the stupid, and the abused for their failings is a good way of ensuring that there is no alternative but to employ tough rhetoric in attempts to tackle their problems because it does not promote public sympathy for adopting a more positive approach. If Blair could grasp that the poor are just as sensible an exception as the rich, then his 10 years would have been a lot more fruitful.
Triumph of decent values
Jade's in the Priory, even though it must be becoming obvious that nobody ever walks out of the place "better". Jo and Danielle are seeing psychiatrists, and weeping copiously in all media. And Shilpa is urging the world to think Gandhi and forgive the demented women who bullied her so crudely.
She's even promised that she'll have a go at persuading India to forgive the three women too. A Catholic priest has popped up and declared that Shilpa is a role model for anybody toying with the outlandish idea of attempting to live "a good life", although many people seem to believe they have already indulged in great goodness by voting Shilpa to win Celebrity Big Brother, and sending death threats to her tormentors.
While there's a cynical edge to reports of the work, cash and fame Shilpa is likely to scoop up, the consensus seems to be that decent values have triumphed. If Jade, Danielle and Jo weren't so modestly endowed with intelligence, they'd never have ended up in their present situations. So they're never likely to be able to point out for themselves that the exercise of decent values never drives anyone to self-loathing and despair in the name of entertainment.
A futile gesture (and far too clean)
Malicious rumours say that the person most offended by the crude and messy vigil that Brian Haw maintained for years along the rim of Parliament Square was Tony Blair himself. They say, too, that the motivation behind the legislation that threw a large protest-free zone around the Palace of Westminster was framed with throwing away Haw's collection of throwaway anti-war rhetoric, and Haw himself. I'm afraid I thought the whole thing was a bit of a tatty old eyesore myself. But it has to be agreed that its enforced dismantling was hardly an exercise in the tolerance Parliament is so fond of urging the rest of us to display.
Now we have protests about protests, with Mark Wallinger's recreation of Haw's little cornucopia now sitting, with grand serendipity, along the perimeter of the exclusion zone, which happens to bisect the entrance hall of Tate Britain. I must say, it looks absolutely dreadful.
Most annoyingly, it's not even messy enough. Wallinger claims to have reproduced the whole thing in every detail. But maybe the battering of months of wind, rain and traffic muck isn't so easy to reproduce, because the whole thing looks too clean.
The artist contends that it is a piece that dolefully marks the erosion of our civil liberties, and in a crushingly literal way, I suppose it does. But I think it is a piece that also marks how attached we are to gesture politics, no matter how futile and pathetic they may be, in all branches of public life, even, or maybe especially, in art. Why the thing is being hailed as some sort of meaning-laden artistic triumph I cannot imagine.
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