Journalist and broadcaster: human rights, social issues, gender, global affairs, politics, arts and culture. Poet. Trustee, Booker Prize Foundation. Outreach worker in prisons and detention centres. 5th book, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, out now.
Choosing political sides in England's porn-fed, combative culture
This is an oddly backdated essay reprinted from the 28 Days project released a month before the 2015 general election, just before the Tories got in for another 5 years with a (slim) majority. You can read the original here.
“If England’s not careful it’s going to wind up on the wrong side of history,” I said.
“Compared to what? Its past? Hasn’t it always been on the wrong side?” was the sardonic reply from a colleague.
We were at a panel discussion about the reality of asylum and immigration in Britain. The audience was full of people who work in the field: service providers, to use that chilling phrase which leaches all the humanity, pain, richness and desperation out of their vital work. I was talking about my latest stint of outreach work, with asylum seekers and refugees, and how the individuals I encountered and the things they had survived were so different from the derogatory and scare-mongering messages put out by politicians and the media.
My colleagues described how they’d witnessed the development of a ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality: an informal bloc of Western European countries whose policies and public messages are openly hostile not just to asylum seekers and refugees but to immigrants of all kinds, to true multicultural understanding, to a nuanced acceptance of religious or cultural difference. There is a mindset of arrogance and racism which sees the rest of the world as backward, dangerous, uncivilised, tribal, contaminated with violence and propensity towards terrorism and religious (but really, they mean Muslim) fundamentalism. It’s as though Orientalism is back, only even nastier than before and without the swollen-up self-assurance of Imperial, exploitative power. There’s an attitude of uncaring exclusion and desperate self-protection against the perceived barbarity of outsiders, often simultaneous to economic recession and the breakdown of reliable education, employment and stability within these European countries themselves. Even politicians on the mainstream left will not stand up for multiracial multiculturalism, open borders or asylum seekers’ and refugees’ rights. They won’t debunk the myths or take the heat out of the bile and misinformation. Why is that? It’ll take too long to change hearts and minds and anyway there’s no money or votes in it.
There was a sense on the night of the panel discussion that England in particular is at a critical point. There is less social mobility than ever before, greater insularity and pessimism, a developing xenophobia and isolationism, higher youth unemployment, less equality of opportunity, greater instability in the job market, a housing crisis in the capital, a weakened welfare system. Underlying everything are the terrifying levels of male violence against women and girls: the harassment, the rape, the objectification, the ageism and dismissal, the mockery, the victim-blaming and disbelief and perpetrator excusal by everyone from social peers to the police and judges, the molestation, the grooming and exploitation and abuse, the gendered bullying in schools and the full-blown development of porn-fed, coercive rape culture. There is the commodification, pornification, sale and renting and usage of us by men and the mainstreaming of a society in which it’s okay to rent and use a human woman to gratify you sexually. We fear terrorism, gun crime, natural disasters, wars – but the most common form of violence in the world is male violence against and abuse of women and girls within the home. That’s in addition to the fact that women have to do more cooking, cleaning, childcare, family admin and parental care because men do not do enough; that we are paid less for the same work; that our behaviour, achievements and ambitions are subject to an onslaught of double standards, pejorative stereotypes, sneers and degrading insults; that our employers punish us for being pregnant and having children; that we are kept out of the higher tiers of every profession and discipline from scientific research to academia to the arts to the media to politics. And when we speak up about what we have witnessed and survived, we are threatened and punished, sometimes by the male perpetrators, sometimes by their male cronies, often by male strangers who send us anonymous rape threats.
I do not believe that people are politically apathetic. Quite the opposite: we are riled, mistrustful, angered and exhausted as we live out the consequences of trying to survive in this hard, patriarchal, capitalist society in which London has become a playground for the international super-rich while the government’s euphemistic ‘austerity’ drives make brutal cuts to social care services, legal aid, charity projects and public sector jobs, all of which have directly impacted the lives of the near-destitute, extremely vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees I work with.
Given the male abuse and inequality we suffer, women are the major users of these services, as well as the majority of employees in the public sector. So we lose our jobs at one end and at the other we lose protection, we lose assistance when we are survivors of male violence, as victims seeking advocacy, as daughters trying to secure support for older relatives, as mothers struggling to survive when our children’s fathers don’t do any fathering and we can’t find work that will accommodate our family lives or pay enough to cover childcare. Rape crisis services close despite endemic levels of male sexual violence; women’s shelters close despite endemic levels of male domestic violence.
Meanwhile, mainly male, mainly white politicians sit back as three course dinners are served to them, with good wine. They work hard, they are dedicated, but they will never be hungry, or cold, or poor, or isolated, or understand what it’s like to fall down between the cracks in society. There is a shock as one looks at the leaders of the three main parties, plus the UKIP freak, and sees that they are, but for a few minor nuances, much the same type. The fabled apathy of the populace kicks in not when we talk amongst ourselves but when we consider the possibility of the political elite listening to and acting on our demands and grievances. We do not believe that they will do so; they have lost our trust and our faith. We believe, instead, that politicians work on behalf of themselves and their wealthy, powerful, well-connected friends.
When did the political system begin slipping away from us like this? Not with Cameron and his men’s club of Eton and Oxbridge cronies. I’d say it happened before then, when Labour betrayed itself to become New Labour, the party of the bourgeois yuppie, the groovy Britpop rightwing-leftwing hybrid that quickly became a war-mongering monster led by a deluded religious zealot. Millions of people protested the Iraq war but it made no difference and that told us everything: people in power don’t listen to people without power. Women are always at the bottom of that heap, of every heap, which is why, scrolling forward a decade-odd, Osborne’s cuts disproportionately affect women – and he didn’t even realise.
The revolution that must come is a specifically feminist, anti-macho, anticapitalist one which dissolves and sweeps away the current combative and exclusive political system altogether. Will I see that happen in all the election years I’ll witness in the future? I doubt it. But I know which side I’m on.