Joyce McMillan: Targeting the vulnerable isn’t funny

Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain, which has been labelled a contributor to right-wing sentiment. Picture: BBC
Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain, which has been labelled a contributor to right-wing sentiment. Picture: BBC
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Shows like Little Britain have helped pave the way for the Chancellor to cut benefits to disabled people, writes Joyce McMillan

It’s always been my feeling that practical political change tends to run about two decades behind the profound cultural shifts that make it possible. The first gay kisses on UK television, for example, were seen sometimes between 1989 (EastEnders) and 1994 (Brookside); and right on cue, twenty years later in 2014, British gay rights campaigners finally won the argument on same-sex marriage.

Likewise, the SNP are currently reaping the benefit of the herculean efforts of Scottish writers and artists, back in the 1980s, to reinvent Scotland as a nation with a great creative future, and not just a heather-and-tartan past; that cultural wave reached its height in the late 1980s, and 20 years later, in 2007, the SNP became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

So part of me was not surprised, on Wednesday evening, to discover that by far the largest single spending cut set out in George Osborne’s budget, announced earlier that day, is in the PIP benefit paid to disabled people, which will be hit to the tune of £4.2 billion over four years. It was just 19 years ago, after all, in 1997, that my wanderings around the Edinburgh Fringe took me to a new show by a comedy team called The League Of Gentleman, the main thrust of whose satire – I called it “backlash” comedy – seemed to involve mocking the apparently ridiculous liberal ideas embraced by their parents’ generation. They portrayed feminism as laughable, ideas about equality as foolish, and human beings as fundamentally selfish, barbaric types who are always lying when they claim any higher motivation than money and sex.

I raged in print against the reactionary tone of this and other comedy on the Fringe that year; but the very next day, The League Of Gentlemen went on to win the Fringe’s premier comedy award, and then, in the case of Mark Gatiss, to become one of the creators of Little Britain, that millennial comedy that finally legitimised, in the heart of British television, the idea that mocking those weaker and more vulnerable than you – the benefit claimants, the single mothers, and of course the disabled – was funnier, and more to the point, than mocking the privileged and the powerful. Small wonder that in his 2012 book Chavs: The Demonisation Of The Working Class, the commentator Owen Jones identified Little Britain as a significant contributor to the strength of right-wing, anti-working class and anti-claimant sentiment in 21st century Britain, even among people who are themselves working class.

And so it is that 19 years on, George Osborne can get away with giving tax handouts to upper rate taxpayers and those liable for corporation tax, while simultaneously hammering disabled people on low incomes. At First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, it was suggested that the latest raft of benefit cuts made by the Chancellor – coming on top of the recent withdrawal of Employment and Support Allowance - would reduce payments to 40,000 disabled people in Scotland by a total of £123 million a year. That means an average loss, for that vulnerable 1 per cent of Scotland’s population, of more than £3,000 a year each; or £60 a week taken from those to whom that money means everything, to benefit those to whom it means almost nothing at all.

Yet there are no riots in the streets over the rank injustice of these measures, just as there are no riots over the fact that, according to the research of the Women’s Budget Group, the impact of around 80 per cent of George Osborne’s cuts in benefits and other social spending, since 2010, is being borne by low-income women. And as a society, we have clearly reached a point where we need to take a long, hard look at the underlying assumptions about our fellow-citizens that tend to support, or at the very least permit without protest, the kinds of actions George Osborne has taken this week.

The success of the neoliberal political project, after all – which has left the UK with a chronically underfunded public sphere, growing inequality, and an ever more offensive gulf between private wealth and public squalor – has been almost entirely dependent on our 
passive acceptance of its cynical and inaccurate account of human nature; the idea that self-interest, and financial self-interest at that, is the main driver of human behaviour, the main source of motivation and satisfaction. Survey after survey shows that this is rubbish; that performance pay does not work, that people are actually far more motivated by peer pressure and shared culture, and that most people rate love, family and friends as far more important than money.

Yet on this flimsy sandbank of right-wing prejudice about human nature, we have built our entire post-1980 economic system, out of tune with human priorities, unfit for purpose in supporting worthwhile human activities, often incapable of thinking beyond the short term, and increasingly led by a small and arguably psychopathic minority whose priorities actually match those of the system itself.

As we watch George Osborne in Flashman mode, though, calmly sticking the financial boot into those weaker than himself, it might finally be beginning to dawn on us that the people he is kicking are not some alien bunch of grotesques from the sink estates, but people like us, our friends, our neighbours, our family members. With that recognition, we might also begin to grasp that nature has nothing to do with it, and never has had; that for the last generation or so, we have been sold a skewed definition of humanity that suits the wealthy and powerful, but does not suit the rest of us at all.

And nothing is more likely to hasten that day of awakening than the sight of George Osborne standing at the despatch box, awarding yet more tax breaks to his well-heeled friends; while taking the same cash from people who often lack the strength and health to defend themselves, and who could only be targeted by politicians who, at heart, believe not in compassion, but in the survival of the fittest, and in the right of the strong to punish the weak, simply because they can.