Tuesday 27 December 2016

Customers or citizens: what's in a name?

 As a pre-Christmas treat I've been reading Alan Bennett's latests volume of diaries, "Keeping on Keeping on." I'm happy that I share a lot of his views and prejudices, not least his irritation at being called a "customer" by the railways and local government, and loud mobile phone conversations on public transport and the streets.

For me the issue re-arose recently when, trying to be helpful, I rang my local authority to point out that a replacement lamppost installed on the terrace where I live didn't actually light (it still doesn't).  The following letter to my (Conservative) councillor explains the situation.
  "Dear Cllr *****,
If you've seen the film "I, Daniel Blake" you'll know that it ends with his (posthumous) testimony that he is, among other things, "not a client or a customer. . .but a citizen."
A few weeks ago I had occasion to  ring the Council to point out that the replacement street lamp fitted on our Terrace was not actually lighting up (it still isn't).  I was forced to spend several minutes listening to a looped tape telling me that "all our operatives are busy dealing with other customers."
When I eventually did get to speak to an operative, after giving my message about the lamp, I asked her to pass on my protest that I expected to be treated as a burgess or citizen, but not a customer.  She replied politely that she was not allowed to pass on messages which challenged policy made by the councillors, but pointed out, reasonably, that not all those who contacted the council were necessarily burgesses or citizens: some were businesses and some were from outside the Kirklees area.
We could get round this problem by re-recording the tape to say that the operatives are dealing with "other people" or simply "others." Equally, you could employ more operatives so that we  citizens who are trying to be helpful don't have to waste so much or our time.

 I suggest you put these to the Council.  I'm sure there'll be plenty of support from your colleagues in the Labour Party who, even if they haven't yet seen "I, Daniel Blake" will be in sympathy with its messages."

The councillor's reply was bland and fails to engage with the point

Thank for your email
I appreciate your point of view but I disagree residents deserve to be treated with respect and as customers by Kirkleees."

No wonder people are losing faith in politicians

I'm happy to say that a former student from the 1960s agrees with me and writes:

 "The reduction of a complex repertoire of social roles - passenger, viewer and listener, student, even citizen - to that of customer is one of the more far-reaching and damaging side effects of neo-liberal economics."

Wednesday 21 December 2016

"British" values - again!

Our Secretary of State for Local Government. and Communities, Sajid Javid, is toying with the idea of making all civil servants and local government employees, and maybe all immigrants as well, take an oath to uphold British values.  This seems to me to be gesture politics at its daftest.

The "British" values Javid is keen to promote are not yet strictly defined but might include:
  • tolerating the views of others;
  • believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse;
  • a belief in equality, democracy, and the democratic process;
  •  respect for the law.
The implication that these values are uniquely or even especially British is an absurd conceit, and an insult to most of our neighbours. They are the values of most  modern democracies and an essential qualification for being eligible for joining the European Union.

 It's a bit rich for a former banker who is alleged to have earned £3m a year before he switched to politics to demand we believe in equality, especially as he's member of a government  which rewards the rich and presides over the bullying of the poor.  And as for respect for the law, his party's chief cheerleader  in the press, the Daily Mail, has called our most senior judges "enemies of the people" when they were asked to consider whether or not his government is acting lawfully..

My own youthful perception of British values were assimilated not by taking oaths but from  low-grade adolescent reading, especially the Biggles novels of W. E. Johns the the Sea Cadet and Scout stories of Percy F. Westerman.  From these I picked up the idea that clean-limbed British boys (there want much reference to girls) were:
  • modest and unassuming;
  • quietly competent;
  • patriotic -  but in an understated way  (no brash flag-waving);
  • reliable -  our "word was our bond;"
  • decent and honest.
Not, alas, a recipe for winning "The Apprentice" or succeeding in politics, or banking, today

An American comic-book hero, I think it might have been Superman, was said to crusade for "truth, justice and the American way."  Substituting "liberalism" for the last one, I think that makes a good set of values:

  • TRUTH: about immigrants, foreign policy, Brexit and its consequences, the distribution of income, conditions in prisons, recipients of social security, the influence of lobbyists, etc. with policy according to facts rather than prejudice.
  • JUSTICE: not just before the law, but economic justice, equality between men and women, the protection of minorities, generous support for  the disadvantaged, removal of artificial advantages (private eduction, perhaps, or even grammar schools), justice for the World's poor.
  • LIBERALISM:  The philosopher Timothy Garton Ash defined this as " a quest for the greatest possible measure of individual human freedom, compatible with the freedom of others."  No more needs to be said.
If these three values permeated our society life would be very pleasant and fulfilling. They will not  be achieved through enforced oaths, but through the example of political and opinion leaders, through art, literature, drama and education.  They will be most quickly achieved if the example comes from the top.

So go to it, Mr Javid: give us a lead.

Sunday 4 December 2016

"I, Daniel Blake" and me.

Last week I saw this  film about a  man in his 50s in the North East  of England who, although he has a heart condition, is diagnosed fit for work by the the government's social security system, and his attempts to appeal his case.

It is a film that makes one thoroughly ashamed to be British and have a government so monstrously unfeeling - determined, it seems to massage down the figures of those unable to work through illness regardless of the human consequences.  I'd like to think that all Conservative MPs, party members and voters, members of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, and readers of the Daily Mail would see it.

My comments relate to three incidents of which I've had practical experience.  The consequences for me have been very minor - just irritation, rather than literally matters of life and death.- but nevertheless signify a downward spiral in the quality of our lifestyle.

The film opens with Daniel Blake "enduring" (that word is used advisedly) a telephone interview to assess his ability to work.  The motivation of the interviewer is  clearly: "Answer the question so I can tick my box"  No time for explanations, qualifications, just "Yes" or "No" to the way I'm required to think of things.

Many of us are experiencing similar blinkered thinking when trying to make sense of banks, investment companies, hospitals and  local government.  Very often the first "conversation" is with a tape recorder.  Press this, press that, listen to this message  (at your expense, because it's often a premium number)  about how you could do what you want on line,  and finally, do it our way or not at all. I get the impression that much of the harassment from the banks is to put us in the position of supplicant, so that in the end we feel grateful that the bank can do anything for us at all.  The reverse, of course, is true: they are dependent on our custom.

There is much talk of the advent of the robotic society.  These are robots, both tapes and humans, and they detract from the quality of life rather than enhance it.

Blake is ordered to pursue his case by computer.   The Department of Work and Pensions, he is told, is
"default computer," to which he responds, "Well, I'm default pencil."  Time and again I have replicated Blake's experience of spending more time than I care to on inputting information  only to find the system fails at the last hurdle.  Much of the  information required , especially on "mail order" systems, is irrelevant to the  request being made, but clearly there simply to enable them to pester us  with unsolicited offers and opportunities that we'd prefer not to be bothered with.

And finally the film closes with  Blake's "final plea" that he is "not a client, a customer....but a citizen."  Here here!  I'm pleased that Alan Bennett, in his latest very readable diaries, Keeping on Keeping, on makes a similar point.  As far as the banks and the supermarkets are concerned I am happy to be a customer because  I have the sanction to " take my custom elsewhere,"  But on the railway I am a passenger, with the health services I am a patient, and with both local and national government I am a citizen.  The attempt to reduce all our relationships to the cash nexus by calling us customers is a monetarist step too far.

I,Daniel Blake also has a sub-plot in which a single mother is driven to prostitution by the intransigence of the system.  Do see it if you haven't already..