We must always challenge the ideology that human pain is a 'price worth paying' - Joyce McMillan

What the system loves is money not humanity, writes Joyce McMillan

Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn. Burns said it, 240 years ago; and the line rings as true today as it did then. Much shock has lately been expressed, for example, at the dead-eyed inhumanity of Robert Jenrick, the UK’s current immigration minister - the man who will now go down in history as the remover of a few cartoons, designed to amuse innocent children in a hellish situation, from the wall of one of the UK’s grim deportation centres.

In truth though, Jenrick’s sickening inhumanity is only the tip of a massive iceberg of legitimised cruelty, ingrained in our current political and economic system. This week, for example, Network Rail coolly announced a plan to close almost all of its station ticket offices in England, for the reason that only 12 per cent of rail tickets are now bought there. Not factored into this equation, though, is the huge importance of the presence of ticket staff for many of the most elderly and vulnerable, and the role station staff play in providing information, security and reassurance even for those who buy their tickets elsewhere.

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It’s a decision, in other words, that hates humanity and its little vulnerabilities; hates us both as travellers and as workers, and would prefer it if we were simply machines serviced by machines. What the system loves, by contrast, is money, and the protection of the value of money; and it’s when we turn to the current inflation crisis, and the chilling nonsense now being talked about it by most ‘orthodox’ economic thinkers, that we can see the ideology of inhumanity operating across our whole economy, with terrifying levels of casual cruelty.

On Monday of this week, for example, the Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey repeated once again that the bank must keep raising interest rates, and in effect provoking economic slowdown and recession, in order to “see through” the job of bringing inflation back to 2 per cent. And all around him, other establishment advisers utter similar weasel words about how sad it is that ordinary British households have to suffer, while advocating for policies that they know will intensify that suffering, in a situation where - as they also know - many working families already cannot afford to put adequate food on the table, pay their power bills, or meet exploding rent and mortgage costs.

Of course, the people who make these pronouncements are vanishingly unlikely to experience any such suffering themselves, or to see anyone they love do so. If they were, you can bet your bottom dollar that the ideology they embrace so unquestioningly would have been rejected as ethically and politically unacceptable decades ago, and replaced with something more fit for purpose.

Yet such is their grip on our economic debate that their cold-eyed ideological madness - deliberately increasing key essential costs for ordinary UK households, at a time of already soaring inflation, when real wages have barely risen in more than decade, while at the same time lecturing those same households on pay restraint - is simply repeated by everyone around them, including an official Labour opposition that still dare not challenge a dominant ideology that has now all but destroyed the relationship between hard work and meaningful reward in the UK.

For let’s be clear: when the chips are down, the central tenet of this ideology, dominant in British politics since 1979, is that it is more important to protect the value of money, than to protect human life and wellbeing. The human disasters caused by this ideology are usually of a slow-burning variety, easy to conceal amid the blizzard of day-to-day news. In the 1980s, for example, it was the slow death of Britain’s heavy industrial communities, a social tragedy which incurred huge human and financial costs, still observable today.

And after the return of the Conservatives to government in 2010, it was David Cameron and George Osborne’s cheerful six-year experiment in making less well-off British households pay the price of the 2008 financial crash, slashing the public services on which they depend, and bearing down on wages. Thirteen years on, we should surely at least be debating - intelligently and intensely - the findings of a credible 2022 academic study which suggested that those “austerity” policies in the UK might have caused more than 300,000 excess deaths between 2011 and 2019, forcing the first decline in life expectancy in 80 years. Yet instead, all we see is George Osborne being rehabilitated as a jolly public figure, whose main point of interest is the orange confetti thrown at his recent society wedding.

And that is to say nothing of what is going on now, post-pandemic, as millions endure sleepless nights of terrible anxiety over increasingly unpayable basic household costs. Here in Scotland, our SNP government spends tranches of money on ameliorating austerity policies imposed from London, and has a measurable if small positive effect; while Gordon Brown, a former UK Prime Minister doing more than most to address the country’s mounting real-world crisis, reveals increasingly shocking details of the poverty he sees in his food-bank work in Fife.

Yet until that shared social democratic tradition of a caring and balanced economy can find a more unified, explicit and coherent voice, for our time, there is little chance of steering the country - or countries - that once pioneered the idea of a welfare state back onto the right track. Or, for that matter, of ending an ideology of human pain as a “price worth paying” that, if never challenged, leads in the end to the vile inhumanity of a Robert Jenrick; and to the sound of human beings weeping in deserted rail stations, where the unattended machines are broken, and only those with a well-charged phone in hand, and a full set of 21st century internet skills, can hope even to begin to buy a ticket, for the journey ahead.



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