Conservative Environment Minister Lord De Mauley has today called on the poor to reconsider their buying habits and resist the temptation to spend more money on the latest electronic gadgets, clothes and food that they will not eat” in efforts to recapture the spirit of “make, do and mend”. In a week that has echoed with unchecked privilege, this takes the biscuit.
Make, Do and Mend?
The current Environment Minister, Rupert Ponsonby, 7th Baron De Mauley was educated at Eton, the fees for which are currently more than £30,000 a year (more than the average UK wage). He went on to marry the daughter of Lord Fanshawe of Richmond (former Tory MP and peer), Lucinda. He is a hereditary peer and succeeded his uncle, the 6th Baron De Mauley. He is the proud owner of myriad farmland and property in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. It is safe to say that the 7th Baron De Mauley has never had cause to make, do and mend…or feel priced out of the latest technological developments.
My grandparents grew up with the spirit of make, do and mend. Their children, my parents, were actively encouraged to ditch that approach by Mrs Thatcher, Ponsonby’s political predecessor. The 80’s saw the rise of the disposable, the replaceable, and the consumer as King. This was actively encouraged by the Tory ideals of conspicuous consumerism. Making, doing and mending was for, to coin a phrase of the age, ‘scabs’. It was Ponsonby’s own party that fostered the culture that abandoned cooperation, sharing, make, do and mend – in exchange for competition, ‘self-reliance’, buy, watch and replace.
Furthermore, Ponsonby has never experienced being a ‘have not’. He does not understand what it is like having to look at the indulgence of the capitalist shop window, whilst unable to afford access to the goods on offer.
It is not that Ponsonby’s sentiments are entirely without merit, no. But they are extraordinarily ignorant, both of Ponsonby’s own privilege and of the reality of life for the growing ranks of impoverished people in the UK today.
The Coalition Government’s assault on jobs, social housing policy and the social security system has eviscerated the real UK economy.
The high unemployment rate and rising cost of living have created the conditions for exploitative behaviour by both the state and private employers. As the market favours the employer, there has been an unprecedented month on month fall in wages through the entire 36 months of the Coalition government, and wages were already falling before they arrived.
On top of unemployment, the UK also has an ever growing problem with underemployment; the case of people unable to find jobs with sufficient hours/pay to meet their needs.
We have also seen the rise of ‘zero hour’ contracts. Almost unheard of a few years ago, more than a million UK workers are now under these contracts. These contracts have no specified working hours – meaning that an employee is placed on permanent stand by until or unless the employer needs them. While classed as employed, the person has no wage security as they cannot guarantee their pay from one week to the next. They also receive no sick pay, leave or other basic terms and conditions.
In October 2012, the National Housing Federation issued the Home Truths 2012: The Housing Market in England report. This report demonstrated that Housing Benefit had doubled in the in just the three years since 2009, and as a direct result of an astronomical increase in housing costs.
The findings speak to the dangers of successive governments abandoning social housing policy to the whims of ‘market forces’, charting the following results:
- An 86% rise in housing benefit claims by working families, with 10,000 new claims coming in per month.
- Rents across the UK have risen by an average of 37% in the UK in just three years preceding 2012.
- Between 2001 and 2011, house prices increased by 94%, while wages increased by only 29%.
Instead of tackling the issues with rent controls or a decent social housing policy, the Coalition have simply withdrawn social security support and blamed the victims. The results have been devastating.
Statutory Homelessness (people without a home who are eligible for local authority support) rose 21% in the last year, while Rough Sleepers (those not eligible for support) rose 31% in England and 62% in London. .The Bedroom Tax, where people receiving Housing Benefit have had their payments cut for having ‘spare rooms’ (while in most of the country, no appropriately sized housing exists) is also seeing many more lose their homes.
The cumulative effects of a range of social security cuts which have hit the working poor, the jobless, the elderly and disabled people has been a sky rocketing rise in reliance on food banks. The number of people relying on food aid in order to rose by 300% between in the year between April 2012 and 2013. This was disgrace enough. Yet, after a string of social security cuts since then, the numbers relying on food aid have shot up 200% in just three months. 150,000 people have joined the queues at food banks, on top of the half million people already there since 2010.
To all these people, the words of this member of the landed gentry must come like the most colossal slap in the face. Learn to go without? They’re the experts.
The Twitter Silence
It’s not just Ponsonby who has been at in the last week. There was also the astonishing unchecked privilege of Caitlin Moran’s #TwitterSilence. Moran and the self-professed commentariat of largely white, middle class ‘speak in a funny voice, it’s all just shits and giggles’ feminists rallied in support when twitter trolls threatened some of their number with rape, murder and various other unpleasantries.
Their answer was a passive aggressive flounce: give twitter the silent treatment for 24hours. There were high penalties for anyone breaking the silence too, when Mary Beard broke the silence to tweet about a death threat she’d received, Giles Coren waded in the slap her down.
It is not that those rejecting the #twittersilence do not appreciate the best intentions of the vast majority of those who supported it. This is not a conversation about intentions. What they resent is the absence of any recognition of the impacts, and the blatant hypocrisy amongst the ‘anti abuse commentariat’.
The first impact of the campaign is to further diminish free speech on the internet. The ‘anti abuse’ camp have demanded twitter add a ‘report abuse’ button to help rid them of trolls – but why not simply block people? If a user is blocked, they can no longer contact you.
Already, the censorship has begun. The twitter account @transphobes roamed twitter since 2011, highlighting accounts which used offensive or threatening language to or about Trans people. While Twitter has taken little or no action on this, they have suspended the @transphobes account.
Ringleader, Caitlin Moran was responsible for these tweets containing frequent transphobic and ableist language – yet @transphobes will no longer be able to hold her to account for it.
In short, the trolls will keep trolling, but the state, powerful individuals and corporations will have yet more means of silencing their opponents.
The second impact is the offense of demanding such a silence. Moran and co could not seem to grasp that for disenfranchised groups more experienced in receiving frequent abuse, the silent treatment was no more than a gagging order. Disabled people, ethnic minorities, elderly people, LGBT groups and so on, balked at being told to shut up by people who a) had made no such requests when it wasn’t one of their own being threatened and b) have vast platforms from which to speak.
For some of the groups, social media is the best way of keeping in touch with others while their physical or mental health keeps them isolated. For all of these groups, both finding a voice and being heard are ongoing struggles, so being asked by a group of wealthy journalists and celebrities to abandon the one platform they have, smacked of unchecked privilege.
We Need to Talk About Privilege…
There has long been a trend for the white, wealthy, red wine drinking liberal to feel they share the struggles of the oppressed and disenfranchised. The reality is, they never can. This happens to us all. As a queer, brown, working class woman with a Jewish wife and trans and disabled friends – I sometimes make the mistake of thinking I’m above all this – then I find myself thoroughly humbled after making a comment which whiffs of my own privilege. In those moments I realise nobody is above this. None of us can own the issues of someone else. We can support, we can embrace, we can acknowledge, but we can never own. We all need to check our privilege.
The key thing missing is the listening. It pays to just listen sometimes when you’ve kicked a hornet’s nest. It is a human response to seek solutions and also to be defensive when those solutions are attacked, particularly if you really believe you are doing the right thing. The problem is, if the very groups you are trying to help, tell you in no uncertain terms that you are not helping, it is time to stop and rethink.
There is a real need to grasp intersectionality and understand that one cannot be a feminist without advocating on behalf of all women, cis and Trans, Caucasian and of colour, straight, gay, queer or bi. One cannot be an anti-poverty campaigner, while having a dialogue of deserving and undeserving poor. One cannot rail against the economic system which destroys people, without opposing the destruction of other life and planet. One cannot campaign on an ‘anti abuse’ platform while abusing others, or creating a hierarchy of suffering with that of one’s own colour, race, sexuality at the top. We need to own our privilege, and check it each and every time we want to wade in on an issue, or we risk alienating the people with whom we are seeking to connect.
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