January 31, 2011 § 12 Comments
You think me anti-Semitic? Not at all! My title refers to the Nazis’ first selected victims of their eugenic attempts to create a ‘master race’ – persecution of the Jews came later; the first victims were disabled people, in particular those with mental illnesses. Quietly gassed in the first experiments with Zyklon B, these unfortunates were comparatively low in numbers, were less likely to be missed, could not speak up for themselves, and had no-one to speak up for them.
Fast forward 70 years to the UK. Successive governments, faced with a rising welfare bill and huge budget deficit caused by the reckless gambling of certain bankers, have wrestled with the problem of how to reduce both. Now, this is not an economics essay; the failure to introduce a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ on the banks, which would have hurt them very little and wiped out much or all the deficit at a stroke, has been raised and argued elsewhere. My business is with the welfare budget, and specifically with measures taken against the disabled community, dressed up by all concerned as “empowering the disabled, enabling them to meet their potential and live active and fulfilled lives”. (If only..)
Am I calling the Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition ‘Nazis’? No, of course not. But it is instructive that the disabled as a group were targeted by both regimes, for the very simple reason that they can’t easily fight back. Battling with ill-health or severe handicaps, beset with fatigue, frustration and the apathetic inertia of bureaucracy at every turn, it is too easy for a disabled person to simply ‘give up’, to accept what is doled out to them, and to take the path of least resistance. It takes a true cynic, and a callous cynic at that, to exploit the weak in this way.
There is another parallel too. In Nazi Germany, the population was subjected to systematic anti-Jewish propaganda, the Jewish community were forced to wear the Star of David prominently, all culminating in the notorious “Kristallnacht” of 1938 when Jewish shops, homes and synagogues were attacked and destroyed by SS stormtroopers. It is a very long step from there to the plight of disabled people in the UK, but consider this : the media, especially the tabloid press ‘led’ by The Daily Mail, have subjected the British population to waves of propaganda against what they call “benefit cheats”. These exist, of course; despite costing the taxpayer far less than tax-avoiding individuals and corporations, they are easier to target and pillory, relying on the righteous indignation of working people against “work-shy scroungers” getting a “free handout”. The fact that genuinely sick and disabled people – an immeasurably larger group – are lumped in with the cheats, attracting the increasing ire of ordinary people, troubles the media not one bit.
One final parallel (please excuse the shocking tastelessness of it, but there is no better way to make the point..) Above the main gates at Auschwitz was the sinister legend “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free“). New arrivals were met, and “assessed as to their fitness for work“. After these assessments, the arrival was steered either “to the left”, or “to the right”. One line was assigned to barracks, to become a cheap hard labour workforce for as long as they could survive working all day with little food; and when their usefulness was over and they could no longer work, they were killed. The other line was sent for an immediate shower. We all know what happened to THEM.
Work makes you free? Jews and other deportees at Auschwitz found no freedom. Now please do not think, even for a moment, that the plight of disabled people in the UK is in the same universe as victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Many disabled people not only WANT to work (if only they could find an enlightened employer and there were jobs available), but some already DO work. However, there are many who simply cannot work, or have worked when younger before being struck down by injury or illness. It is instructive, isn’t it, that the same mantra of “work makes you free” – or in our case, “work brings you dignity, fulfilment and self-respect” – is being used to justify a deeper, more sinister motivation? It is instructive, is it not, that disabled people arriving at “ATOSchwitz” are being “assessed as to their fitness for work“, and as a result of this cursory – often even less expert than the Nazis – examination, are having their future lives mapped out, are being steered into the “left line” or the “right line”. The aim of the politicians is to reduce public spending, and what better way to disguise that than to take benefits away from the most vulnerable, the least able to fight back, under the pretence they are “helping us”?
“What is happening to the disabled”, you ask, “that you should make such accusations?” Let me call forth the main witnesses, one by one.
Step forward ATOS Healthcare. Charged with ‘assessing’ the sick and disabled, then making decisions about whether these are to receive the latest version of Incapacity Benefit (renamed, in a fit of Orwellian NewSpeak, as ‘Employment Support Allowance’), or to be thrust into the job market (or “on the dole”, as it used to be called). Now, some ATOS assessors have some medical training. Some do not. But those professionals who definitely do – the claimant’s own doctor and consultant – are not thought fit to provide the necessary evidence. What is more, ATOS are charged with reducing the benefit roll by a certain percentage, it matters not whether the numbers include those who are genuinely sick or disabled (and most are, despite the best efforts by The Daily Mail to label all who receive welfare as ‘workshy’, ‘cheats’, and / or ‘scroungers’).
Step forward David Cameron. Yes, the same Prime Minister whose own son Ivan was severely disabled, and sadly died. You might think, might you not, that a father who had been in such a position of tragic responsibility, would not preside over the kind of institutionalised heartlessness towards the disabled currently being perpetrated? You might think, might you not, that the experience of dealing daily with the problems of severe disability, would bring some sense of perspective and compassion? You might indeed think so.
The problem is, young Ivan was so severely disabled that David Cameron now seems blinded to all apparently ‘lesser’ forms of disability. God forbid that someone who has had ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy) for 20 years, can barely get out of bed unaided, cannot think straight, often cannot walk, be regarded as disabled. “You’re just tired, snap out of it”. I have no idea if David Cameron actually thinks this, but since fatigue as a symptom is specifically excluded from ATOS assessments, his civil servants certainly do.
Step forward The Labour Party. What, the whole party in perpetuity? No, specifically New Labour including its current leader Ed Miliband. The original Labour Party’s founding philosophy was the protection of the working classes, of women, of the very young, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. Yet New Labour, concerned with bringing down the welfare budget – the self-same welfare system that its antecedents fought so hard to bring into being – were the ones who brought in ESA, ATOS Healthcare, and the assessments designed to reduce the numbers claiming Incapacity Benefit.
In all the discussions concerning the current public expenditure cuts, Ed Miliband has stood up and opposed the Coalition in almost every initiative. Except one. He has gone along with the reduction in the welfare budget, especially the Incapacity Benefit farrago; why should he not? It was, after all, his predecessors who introduced it, and Ed is not mature enough, not yet comfortable enough in his shoes, to forge his own political identity and stand up to the “tabloid media” populism we now live under.
The new Jews?
Disabled people in Britain are facing an attack on their security, peace of mind, and long-term prospects, unparalleled since the Second World War and the Beveridge Report’s precursor to the Welfare State as we know it. Sick people are being thrown into a jobs market that cannot find work for healthy, able-bodied people. Disabled people are having their benefits cut and abandoned to the discretionary powers of the Social Services at a time when the latter are having their budgets severely trimmed. (And let us not forget – Social Services place disability near the bottom of their priority scale, having to concentrate on ‘problem families’ and child welfare). It is not too much of an exaggeration to call this a crisis, a crisis being forced upon people who can least afford to deal with it, either financially or in terms of human resources. The ‘belt tightening’ of the average working family is utterly trivial in comparison.
With endless apologies to any Jewish people reading this and all ready to take offence – look into your own history and if you hate what you see there, rise up in protest and make an outcry. And to everyone reading this who has a human conscience, do the same : rise up in protest and make your voices heard. Cry out on behalf of those who so often cannot.