JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.9.12
DIVIDE AND RULE. THROUGHOUT history, it has been the favourite maxim of oppressive rulers; and it has never been deployed with more success that in the United States and Britain, since the fateful tipping-point – just a generation ago – when our societies began to shift from an age of progress and growing equality, into the present age of reaction.
So last week, we saw how the strategy of divide-and-rule worked to protect South Yorkshire police in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, when those who died were portrayed to the rest of Britain as drunken thugs, alien to respectable citizens like themselves. And this week, we saw Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States, dismissing half of the voters in his own country – the ones who vote Democrat – as lazy slobs, who pay no tax and live off benefits.
Of all the divide-and-rule strategies, though, it seems to me that there is none cruder, or more potentially cruel, than the systematic attempt now being made to blame the whole of my generation, the so-called “baby boomers”, for the hardships now being suffered by young people in their twenties. And this week, to my infinite sadness, this ugly line of thought arrived with a headline-seeking crash in Scottish politics, when a debate at Holyrood was apparently dominated by dire predictions that our society could be “torn apart” by inter-generational conflict, if greedy pensioners continue to receive universal benefits such as bus passes, and the famously costly free personal care.
Now without a doubt, there is a debate to be had about the fairness and continuing viability of universal benefits, as against the targeting of public spending where need is greatest. It’s difficult to imagine, though, what kind of reputable person would seek to set that debate in the framework of an attempt to ramp up hostility against an entire generation – a generation which is, in truth, extremely varied in its economic circumstances. For myself, I count myself lucky to have had the famous benefit of a free university education supported by grants. I count myself lucky to be in work, and earning a few thousand pounds a year more than the UK average wage. I count myself normal in having always paid my taxes, and having been happy to do so; and I don’t object to the fact that although I recently turned 60, I am no longer entitled to a state pension at this age.
I count myself unlucky, on the other hand, to have taken out three small private pension plans in the late 1980’s, without realising – as most people now do – that the industry is heavily skewed in favour of the provider, and could never offer me a significant retirement income. And as for my bus pass – well, I haven’t applied for it yet; but given the amount of money our governments have lately found to spend on such debatable items as the renewal of Trident, and the notorious trillion-pound bailout of the banks, you must forgive me if I find it hard to believe that my bus pass – likely to be used in moderation, and warmly appreciated as a small gesture of recognition – is the thing that is “tearing society apart”. It’s an assertion that makes about as much sense as Nick Clegg’s apology this week – now hilariously satirised on social media – for making a promise on student tuition fees that he couldn’t keep, because “there wasn’t the money to pay for it.”
In the current competition for what are being framed as “scarce” public resources, in other words, we urgently need to stand back from the day-to-day debate, and take a sober look at a much bigger picture. First, we need to ask ourselves why, in a country with generally low levels of pensions and benefits, we are so vulnerable to the false belief that we, the tax-payers, are being excessively generous; whereas anyone who takes the slightest interest in the facts can see the truth that millions of women in my generation, in particular, are facing retirement with no significant pension provision at all, and that Britain’s standard state pension, at £107 a week, is not enough to live on, never mind to live it up on.
Secondly, we need to ask ourselves why, when our societies are measurably wealthier than they were a generation ago, we are expected to believe that we can no longer afford public goods that we once took for granted. We need to ask – as Nick Clegg does not – whether the resources really are “not there”, or whether the use of them to provide generous public services and benefits is being interdicted by other forces in the system; not least by those wealthy individuals who are now able to annex, and take out of the country, amounts of personal wealth that would keep significant public services running for years.
And finally, we need to grasp that there is, behind all of this, a profound debate about what a society is, and why its common life matters. For we can all, in our worst moments, perform that cheap and nasty psychological trick of distancing ourselves from the thing we most fear, whether it is poverty, or failure, or old age and infirmity. We can frame those who suffer from these things as “other” than ourselves, withhold compassion from them, deny that we owe them anything, work up a lather of bar-room indignation over the taxes we pay to support them.
Every time we adopt these attitudes, though, we only damage ourselves; damage our completeness as human beings, our knowledge that we ourselves will one day be old and frail, and our ability to live with that truth, or indeed to recognise any truth at all. The braver and wiser thing is to try to build a society on the most enlightened and generous impulses of the human mind, on its generosity, imagination, empathy, curiosity, and infinite invention. And in my experience, those who spend a lifetime trying to do that are finally able to count their old-age pension in things that matter far more than money; in a true sense of fulfilment, and in the security that comes with friendship, comradeship, self-respect, and love.