Living the Dream

Waiting for better in an uncertain world.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming about threat; situations where I’m unable to stop terrible things happening. Some of that predisposition to fear the worst is perhaps due to watching too much news, reading too many articles about the advance of climate change and so-on. But most is probably more to do with my financial situation.

5 years ago, in my piece ‘Working Around Illness when You’re Self Employed’ I outlined why it’s not easy to earn a living when one has health issues. Those issues don’t go away and are made worse by government polices that purposely erode support for those with disabilities; our DLA was replaced with PIP and most of us were turned down. The ‘minimum income threshold’ was introduced to remove some benefits from the low-income self-employed. Remaining benefits have not been increased to match inflation and so-on. So disabled people who have permanent or chronic conditions are really not doing well.

The rise of energy prices, rents and the massive hike in food prices – particularly at the low end where many cheap lines have been discontinued – has, for me, made the end of each week somewhat tense. About 20% of the UK population now live ‘hand-to-mouth’ according to many reports published recently on-line. In the USA about 30% of people live ‘pay-check-to-pay-check’. Often, on Fridays, I have a nearly empty fridge, no fuel in the car and very little electricity left on my pre-payment meter. Luckily, I have wonderful customers who understand my situation and if I invoice them on a Friday or Saturday, at least one will normally pay straight away so I can do some shopping and continue to live with some semblance of normality.

But, often, my customers have other things going on in their lives and they don’t get around to paying, or perhaps are unable to pay for several days. In those situations, I just have to wait. The problem being that with insufficient fuel in the car, dwindling electricity on the meter and very little in the fridge, it’s hard to do much other than stay home. Those are days I should be working for other customers. If I wait one, two or three days for payment, those are one, two or three days I can’t work and earn money – it’s a negative feedback loop that makes each week worse than the last unless I can find some additional time, somehow, somewhere. But given my restrictions are also in large part due to my health, its a double whammy. When I can’t work due to health I lose. When I’m healthy enough to work but can’t afford to work, I also lose. What’s left, week to week, day to day, hand to mouth is constantly precarious.

There are millions of people in this situation. It’s nothing new. But as many of us in this situation get older the prospects for anything improving become vanishingly small. I found it difficult in my 50s but now, in my 60s, it feels uphill all the way, all the time. Tory governments seem to revel in making life tougher for those who already are struggling and love to impose further austerity for the poor and disabled while enriching the rich with billions. Labour has shifted to the right and has pretty much followed the Tory line, and there’s been not one iota of firm policy published of late to put our minds at rest. Starmer’s rhetoric to scrap Work Capability Assessments and Universal Credit and make benefits systems “fit for the 21st Century” doesn’t help unless we know what will replace those systems. Will DLA return? Will PIP be improved? Will the MIT be revised? So far, Starmer has shown himself to be totally untrustworthy and firmly on the side of our oppressors rather than showing any meaningful solidarity with those under the thumb of the ruling class.

Meanwhile, we, those for whom health and age severely limit our options, wait. We wait to be able to do anything that those on a decent wage do without thinking. We wait to be able to travel to work, we wait for food, we wait for heat and light. We wait, living the dream.

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Hard Reign Falling

King Charles’s first speech since the death of his mother was, in stark contrast to the performative fawning and crocodile tears from our politicians, corporations and sundry others, beautifully restrained, well crafted and delivered impeccably. If there was a perfect time for such profound Englishness to be displayed, that was it. It is a fiction to which many of us can subscribe simply because it feels safe and professes to subscribe to feelings of continuity amid changes to systems and circumstances in which the future of the human race is in question.

Regardless of whether or not one personally feels affected by things like climate change (and all that it entails), inequality in all its forms and all manner of bigotry, it’s understandable that the outpourings of grief from these shores, both genuine and manufactured, at the Queen’s passing might offer some strange comfort. It might also offer an outlet for anger and frustration, built up over years, in response to that other side of Britishness; not the fictional ‘fair play’ but the very real colonialism, nationalism and exceptionalism that underpins the might of European and American hegemony. How we feel, and why we feel what we feel, is, therefore political. As a small ‘r’ republican, I did not expect to be so moved by the replacement of one sovereign by another and I’ve been thinking about my emotional response. When a public figure dies, we are not really mourning them, unless we knew them personally, we are reliving, or even experiencing for the first time, our grief for those we actually knew and loved. Or we might be grieving for something else – the loss of our youth, the end of an era, the loss of old friendships or the loss of innocence. In my case, it is the loss of innocence.

As I’ve mentioned in other pieces, I can date my loss of innocence fairly accurately to 1968 and Powell’s Rivers Of Blood speech. Before that, The Queen (her Accession was only 4 years before my birth), Churchill, The Beatles, Henry Cooper and countless other British icons were fantastic, magical and almost deific symbols of security and continuity; even if they did wrong, they could do no wrong. Children do, of course, have those defence mechanisms in place in order to survive – yet many children grow into adulthood without shedding their protective fantasy cloaks and continue to proclaim their nationalist exceptionalism even as they progress to the mighty realms of state and politics. Such infantilisation, wall-to-wall (10/09/2002) on the BBC today, is not only a blanket in which to wrap the population, but a blanket to pull over our eyes as if any loss of innocence we might have experienced had never happened.

After Powell’s speech, my childhood brain fully expected to hear that he had been arrested and locked up, that he had had some kind of mental illness and that he had been taken to hospital. But my white family all supported him apart from, it seemed, my mother who attempted to appear less authoritarian and vaguely leftish but made no defence, within our earshot anyway, of her children. The media, for weeks afterwards showed scenes of mass support for Powell, there were documentary features about him, interviews with the ‘Great And The Good’ both in support of Powell and against him – but I did not hear anyone close to me, at that time, say he was wrong. From ‘68 until his death in ‘98 he was treated, for good or ill as a serious person. And, of course, he was serious. The famous Dick Cavett interview and the discussion between Jonathan Miller and Powell exemplified the white intellectual seriousness of the discourse on race. Miller, of course, comes out as a compassionate advocate of co-operation but both men talk about the issues as if they have every right to decide how British people of colour should react to Powell’s ideas.

For the next 30 years, Powell was somewhat of a media star whether as a politician or the go-to intellectual white man. My 12 year-old expectation that he should be carted off to an institution, lasted from when I fist heard the speech on television to shortly afterwards when I realised that those great symbols of Britishness were not going to come to my aid. Though Powell believed in ‘voluntary’ repatriation (at first : later in life he considered other options), not one member of my family thought to be vociferous against the idea, they simply assured me that they would somehow protect me if the policy got through. While the Child Migration Programme, in which 100,000 children from poor backgrounds and/or of mixed race were forcibly taken from their parents and shipped to Australia and elsewhere right into the 1970s, was totally legal and sanctioned by the powers that be, my white family thought that it was in their gift to stop the forced repatriation of their own children and grandchildren in the event that Powell’s creed became law.

The Royal family in general and the sovereign in particular, for good or ill, represent ‘us’. In general, as symbols of hierarchy, power, continuity, Britishness and all that is deemed to be good for the nation and, in particular, as head of state. The fact that the sovereign of a constitutional monarchy acquiesces not to wield party political opinion does not mean it does not wield party political opinion; saying nothing while terrible things happen to others is a political statement. Using soothing words to persuade people that all is well when it clearly isn’t, is a political act. Always supporting ‘my government’ regardless is ethically outrageous. These political acts of omission and commission are designed to bolster the power of the elite; in pre-capitalist societies the carrots and sticks of royal patronage and brutal power were wielded brazenly; friends were awarded huge country estates while enemies were tortured to death or killed in public in the most brutal and vile fashion. Though capitalism clothes everything in shiny, corporate smug self-belief and tends to export horror when it can and award friends via the world of digital banking and offshore accounts, capitalism in the UK relies heavily on ideas of Britishness and social structures underpinned by the royal family’s ability to acquiesce to new forms of the power they used to wield more crudely.

The monarchy is so much more than pageantry for tourists. They help to set a national tone in terms of what they celebrate and what they do not. The extents to which opinion is offered, or not, by a sovereign or his or her extended family, have a massive effect on what is deemed acceptable behaviour. It is not surprising that politics in this country has moved so far to the right, that we’ve had a succession of grim and ghastly politicians on our front benches. The climate crisis, poverty and war are set to ravage the planet in ways we have previously not experienced and we, the people, are expected to be awestruck in reverence for an anachronistic institution that has, almost silently, presided over the build-up to the coming catastrophe. The Monarchy has existed in this country for nearly 1200 years. In that time there have been 61 monarchs with unrivalled power and prestige and access to information. The late Queen spanned an extraordinary phase in human history and has had every opportunity to make ethical choices. Instead she hid behind the veils of tradition and supported the capitalist project without question. King Charles, as the Prince of Wales, was slightly more outspoken yet his strong opinions are either for comparatively trivial matters, such as his daft views on architecture, or fly in the face of rationality, like his admiration for far-right woo pseudo-science. To say the monarchy has been a disappointment is an understatement of huge proportions.

I mourned the loss innocence, the idea that all would be well, in 1968. Many younger people have lost it more recently when they paid attention to climate science, or other important matters, in school and elsewhere. But for many people of colour and other minorities threatened by the rise of the right wing, that feeling of loss is something we carry with us all the time. Our existence as accepted and respected citizens is forever questioned, everyday, by odd looks, micro-agressions, poor responses from shops, stores and public services, verbal attacks, physical attacks, the difficulties finding work, constant poverty and the feeling that, at any moment, a right-wing government will deem us unworthy and ship us off to another country. Neither Enoch Powell nor Mosley, Farage or any of those extremists got very far but now they don’t have to. The far right have infiltrated the Conservative Party to such an extent that their policies are now almost indistinguishable from the ideas held by Powell.

Last night I found myself weeping. Not because the Queen had died but because that era of childhood hope that ended for me in 1968, can never return and the future looks as if it might be a lot worse than expected.

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