From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
‘Now any student going to college will see the grant disappear, debts mount, and the real possibility of paying fees’
A new year is always a time for reflection, and also of course a time of honours and rewards. So I’d like to reflect a little on my past, and also give some credit where credit is due.
I never met my Uncle Charles. He was my father’s younger brother, a young man of 27 or 28 when he died in a sanatorium.
He died of TB, a disease closely associated with poverty and overcrowding. It was a disease that carried a stigma, because it was alleged to run in families and was contagious. In Ireland, where my uncle lived, it had claimed thousands of lives throughout the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, thanks to rising living standards and medical advance, the numbers dropped rapidly until they became almost non-existent.
Throughout practically all my life it has been a disease of no significance at all. I have often thought that had my uncle been five or ten years younger he would still be around today.
So negligible did the disease become that the handful of real hypochondriacs I have encountered in my life, who have invented a most startling variety of symptoms for everything from AIDS to leukaemia, have never once conjured up TB as the source of their downfall.
Yet this disease is back. It claimed 60 lives last year in Britain, and its growth is now significant throughout the country, the East End of London in particular. I have listened to various discussions on the withdrawal of invalidity benefit, and more than once have heard Tories say that these claimants can’t be genuine as we are a healthier country than we’ve ever been. The TB figures nail that lie.
So in honour of my late Uncle Charles I would like to present my first award in Stack on the Back’s new year’s honours list: to Virginia Bottomley for really taking the health of the country back to basics.
My second wander down memory lane goes even further back. It was a story I read in an Irish newspaper when I was 12 years old. It was about an incident that occurred in my father’s home town in County Kerry when he was a youth. He remembered it vividly. A young single girl, no more than 16 or 17 years old, got pregnant. When the time came for her baby to be born she was refused admission by the local, Catholic, hospital. As a result she and the baby died during childbirth.
The funeral took place but when the coffin was brought to the gates of the church and graveyard the local parish priest refused to admit it. In the end her brothers smashed the gates down and took the coffin in. She was treated in this way because there could be no greater stigma in Ireland at that time than that of being an unmarried mother. Any such child was branded a bastard, any such mother a harlot. Thankfully those days have long passed. We have enjoyed an era where there has been little or no shame to single parenthood.
At least this was true until recently. All of a sudden single parents are shameful, feckless, scrounging and lack moral fibre. Their children are the source of most crime, wrongdoing and good old-fashioned ‘evil’ that exists in society today. So let’s start by cutting off their benefits, denying them accommodation, looking down on them and (who knows?) eventually maybe we can get back to a situation where we don’t even bury them.
So for their great service in reviving long forgotten prejudice and discrimination, I would like to give Stack on the Back’s brand new back to bastards award to Michael Howard and Peter Lilley.
For my final reflection I’d like to take in two memories. When I was a kid you could not get free secondary education in Ireland unless you passed a scholarship at the age of 11. In England it was somewhat different. You also took an exam at 11, but this exam more or less determined whether you would be a brain surgeon or a dustman. Either you went to grammar school, with the full expectation of university ahead of you, or you went to secondary modern where you could expect to be trained for manual work.
By the time I got to college in the 1970s there were a number of older students there. They had been cast aside at 11 years of age, working in jobs that bored them rigid and never tested their potential, but thanks to the huge expansion in free higher education and a grant that was just about liveable on they were getting a second chance.
Frequently they turned out to be brilliant, zealous (frequently far too zealous for my liking) students, seizing what they had always thought would be denied them. But now any student going to college will see the grant disappear, debts mount, and the real possibility of paying fees looming on the horizon.
Meanwhile in school, testing and streaming is being reinforced. Now kids as young as seven can end up on the scrapheap for the rest of their lives. What a lovely way to treat our youngsters, what a great way to wreck people’s lives.
So thank you very much Mr Patten, and it gives me great pleasure to present you with Stack on the Back’s three Rs award. For you are definitely the Rank Rotten Rodent of the year.
Finally my wish for 1994: that those millions of angry disillusioned bitter people turn their anger into action and teach Major and his motley crew a few basics of our own. We could do worse than starting by going back to the guillotine!
Last updated: 26 February 2017