On November 23rd 2015 my mind was concentrated on the politics of health and the welfare state in a way that I had not anticipated, raising issues that I now realize I had never adequately thought through before. Brunel University London, my then employer, had organized a public debate on the future of the welfare state as part of its celebrations for its 50th anniversary. I was a member of the panel of that debate. What neither I nor the University realized was that this was to result in more publicity than the University had ever previously gained– about anything. I was caught up in all the metrics of our postmodern age; videos going viral, tweets and Facebook trending and massive Google searches.
I need to say that this was not the result of us all sparking off some amazing new popular interest in health and welfare – if only. Instead it was because the former Sun and now Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins was also a member of the panel (alongside anti-poverty campaigner, the Reverend Paul Nicolson and Harriet Sergeant of the right of centre, Centre for Policy Studies). For those not at the cutting edge of populist culture, Ms Hopkins is the columnist who called migrants ‘cockroaches’ and who said she’d use ‘gun boats to stop migrants’ rather than rescue boats to save them. A quick check of her columns and contributions to broadcast media discussions, shows she is also prepared to attack people on benefits for their dependency and irresponsibility.
Brunel’s students made their views clear about Ms Hopkins when she started to speak at the debate. Quietly and with dignity, they first turned their backs and then filed out of the auditorium in large numbers to some applause. This sparked off a high profile media debate about whether the students should have done this, and about whether the University should have invited Ms Hopkins in the first place and people’s right to have ‘safe space’.
Personally, I respected and admired the students’ behaviour. They got engaged. They expressed a principled view. But the downside is, as Ms Hopkins made clear, this is exactly what she wanted. She, rather than the welfare state, became the story and she got even more clicks and higher visibility – which seems to me to be her raison d’etre. This raises two major issues. First, we cannot ignore powerful figures like Ms Hopkins – simply because they are powerful and influential. They won’t go away – they must be confronted for their discrimination and divisiveness. It is clear that the politicians and media proprietors will continue to use people like her as mouthpieces to advance a specific neoliberal project. The aim is to sufficiently confuse most citizens on the issues of the day in order to keep them on side against powerless and disadvantaged people. Second, we need to find more effective techniques to deal with these ideologues rather than walking away.
But there are also two other issues we need to consider in relation to Ms Hopkins herself. First is her preoccupation with people having a job. As I said at the debate this brings to mind George Orwell’s famous comment from ‘Down And Out In Paris and London’ about work. He wrote:
Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is WORK? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor.
And indeed as I also said at the debate, high-minded compared with many a Sun or Daily Mail columnist. And how does that ‘job’ stack up as ‘work’? Does the lady perhaps protest too much because of her own internal doubts – not that I would attempt to psycho-analyse her.
Second, Ms Hopkins came to the debate bravely having had a recent fall reported as a result of her epilepsy. She spoke of the kindness of people and going to NHS accident and emergency. Hold on, is this the same person one of whose closing remarks at the debate was ‘privatise everything’? Why didn’t she go to one of the private A&E departments that are blossoming in London and pay her way, as she evidently feels the rest of us should? Or is this just part of the bigger gap between the divisive rhetoric of newspaper columnists and tame politicians in service of the super rich, proclaiming the need for ever more personal responsibility and self-sufficiency whilst simultaneously avoiding and evading corporate responsibility and taxes at every possible turn?
About the Author: Peter Beresford OBE is Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University London and Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network. He is author of All Our Welfare (Policy Press, 2016~)