The political atmosphere is so dominated by the prejudices and norms of the right that it always a surprise when someone expresses even the most basic of socialist or egalitarian ideas in the mainstream media.
Hence it was a joy to see Mark Steel tell it like it is on Question Time on 26 January. When the panel were asked about the proposals to cap benefits he said “This is what [the Tories] do all the time — make the poor pay for the mess created by the rich”.
Pointing out that there are only 67,000 households receiving housing benefit and that the areas where most is paid are simply those where rent is highest, he identified the pernicious political agenda. “The real danger here,” he said, “is that all the different people being hammered are made to squabble amongst each other about which of them are to blame while the rich get away with it.” It’s one of the greatest indictments of the Labour Party that we rely on left-wing stand-up comics to popularise such ideas.
Earlier in the same day, however, the most widely read newspaper in the country contained a particularly vile example of the “blame-the-poor” method. In his Sun column Rod Liddle decided to do the brave and challenging job of attacking the disabled.
“My New Year’s resolution for 2012 was to become disabled. Nothing too serious, maybe just a bit of a bad back or one of those newly invented illnesses which make you a bit peaky for decades — fibromyalgia, or ME.”
“And being disabled is incredibly fashionable. The number of people who claim to be disabled has doubled in the past ten years.”
“I think we should all pretend to be disabled for a month or so, claim benefits and hope this persuades the authorities to sort out the mess.”
“It has become easier to claim those benefits, partly as a consequence of the disablement charities who, out of their own self-interest, insist that an ever-greater proportion of the population is disabled.”
It is customary for hate-mongers like Liddle to be hailed by their co-thinkers as boldly “saying the unsayable”. Except Liddle lacks the courage to admit his own poisonous bigotry. He was, he later claimed, only attacking a group he called “the pretend disabled”. The “real disabled” he had no problem with. In fact, so goes the truly tired excuse now, these exposures of the “sham disabled” (or poor, sick etc) are the best means of championing the genuinely vulnerable.
This defence was repeated in the Telegraph by self-styled (and immensely self-important) libertarian James Delingpole. If you took the trouble to read Liddle’s article, as he had, you could see that his point was well-made. And this point was? “There really are far, far too many people sponging off the taxpayer right now ... and they’re one of the reasons we’re in the financial mess we’re in.” “One of”, he adds defensively.
Liddle’s claim that he was only having a go at fakers is just a tad undermined by his reference to ME and fibromyalgia.
Dr Charles Shepherd, the medical spokesperson for the ME Association, said: “This is a disgusting and inaccurate attack on people with ME Rod Liddle should get his facts right. The condition is recognised by the World Health Organisation after first being described in the Lancet in 1955.” And fibromyalgia is a medical disorder characterised by chronic widespread pain and a heightened and painful response to pressure. Both conditions are routine targets for people like Liddle because the symptoms of severe fatigue and exhaustion, make for bit of easy dog-whistle politics to label sufferers no more than lazy.
Underneath the inhumane bile, however, is political and economic illiteracy.
There is no examination of any of the reasons why disability might have doubled, such as the overall increase in population or the fact that people are living longer or the attack on health and safety at work.
There is no attempt to consider how much the banking collapse, the Eurozone crisis or the austerity programme may have contributed to “the financial mess we’re in” when compared to “exaggerated disability”. Liddle doesn’t even attempt a calculation on this front.
Delingpole does dabble in hard figures. “A report last year from the Taxpayers’ Alliance showed that in 2007/8 over £37 million of our money was spent on our behalf,” he claims. That does seem like quite a lot but can he be sure this has been spent on the “pretend disabled”? It turns out that this figure, quoted in a very short article about disability fraud, has nothing whatever to do with benefit claims but, it is alleged, was paid by the government to “hard-left organisations like Friends Of The Earth and the New Economics Foundation”. What is the link with disability benefits? Perhaps they are linked in Delingpole’s mind because they “campaign for more encroachment in our lives by the overweening state”.
Delingpole is the author of a number of books, among them 365 Ways to Drive a Liberal Crazy and Welcome to Obamaland. In fact while his third-rate public school-boy attempts at controversy will leave most “liberals” yawning, the poison spread by the likes of him and Liddle serve the essential purpose so sharply skewered by Mark Steel.
They encourage “the working poor” (who really exist and are really poor) to blame the unemployed and disabled for an economic crisis caused by the rich and powerful. And Liddle, Delingpole and their ilk serve the rich and powerful for their miserable living.