Thursday, 25 October 2012

Who Ate all the Pies?

In two years' time, Scotland will be holding a referendum to determine its future as a nation. Watching the news today, one could be forgiven for thinking that, instead, it was holding a bake sale. "Would you buy a used pie from this man?" asks Johann Lamont, pointing the finger at Alex Salmond (one assumes that if Iain Gray were still Labour leader, the offending item would be a sandwich). Whatever one's political inclinations, it's hard to escape the feeling that someone's telling porkies - but to focus on this is to miss the bigger question. Why should anybody contemplating the referendum base their decision on what they think of individuals?

The great man theory of history has always been seductive, and this is certainly a historical moment. It's often easier to contemplate such momentous changes (and there will be changes regardless of which way Scotland votes) by filtering them through the personalities involved. But whilst this may prove useful for students trying to form an emotional connection to the past, it is dangerous on several level when applied to the present.

First of all, we need to take ego out of the equation. The magnetism of particular individuals (whether it attracts or repels) will have little meaningful effect on how events play out after the referendum. Yes, in the short term, it may play a significant role in alliance building (whether that's renegotiating aspects of the union, strengthening our relationship with Westminster or establishing new international relationships), but this decision is much bigger than that. We are voting not just on how issues might be managed in the immediate term but, potentially, about how our country will function for hundreds of years. In that time, everybody involved in today's squabbles will die.

Secondly - and this may seem less obvious - we need to take nationalism out of the equation. Scotland deserves better than to have its future decided by flag-waving, whether that flag is the Saltire or the Union Jack.* This isn't about dead warriors, empire, Team GB, Woolworths or tartan-wrapped fudge. People can feel passionately Scottish and still support the union or can vote for independence without jeopardising their British identity - really, it's okay, that's allowed. I was quite taken aback when I heard members of the No campaign arguing that we shouldn't be independent because people care for each other across the border. Personally, I care for people all over the world (and have family around the world too) but it doesn't influence my political relationship with them. It would be perfectly possible to support an independent Scotland from an internationalist perspective, preferring that option for economic or managerial reasons without according it sentimental value. Similarly, it's possible to support the union without the prerequisite of having best friends who are English.

Thirdly, we need to remember that this isn't about political parties. If it were, why would Labour be working with the Conservatives? The Green Party has allied itself to the Yes campaign alongside the SNP, as has a faction of the Labour Party. Despite their official line, there are LibDems wavering in either direction. And alongside this, of course, there are a great many ordinary people who feel passionately one way or the other but don't worry much about political parties until it comes to marking a cross on the ballot paper on election day (if, indeed, they even do that). Don't like the SNP? Independence would likely lead to them splitting and dwindling as members' other concerns rise to the fore. Don't like Labour? If we stay in the Union you can bet they'll take the blame for every subsequent Westminster-wrought ill. (The Conservatives are probably not long for this world either way.) In other words, it's all rather complicated; and, again, the issue of our country's long term future is bigger.

If we, the Scottish public, allow this issue to be reduced to a spat about personalities, we'll all be poorer for it. So by all means bitch about Salmond (if you don't blame him for the recent confusion over legal advice, you can always remind yourself of his sometime cosy relationship with Donald Trump), but don't base your approach to the referendum on that issue. Despair, if you will, or one or more of the No campaign's strange bedfellows, but remember that they won't be around as long as the consequences of this decision. And let's remember that, when all is said and done, we'll all be eating the same pie, so let's not poison it with spite.

* I realise that, strictly speaking, it's only the Union Jack when it's flown at sea, but I'm trying to keep this simple.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Wolves in Lions' Clothing

There's a lot of concern just now around extremely right wing policies being trotted out at the Conservative Party conference. But how seriously should we take them? How seriously are they intended? And is there a danger that, in steeling ourselves for the worst, we put ourselves in a position where we will too-willingly accede to things that don't seem quite as bad?

With their pre-election promises to protect the NHS and to generally be kind and caring, the Conservatives have been accused of being wolves in sheep's clothing. A savvy wolf, however, has more than one disguise. What's more, it may dress as a lion for more than one reason - to subject the sheep to a different kind of illusion or to make an impression on other wolves. Right now, the Tory Party conference is a battleground in which every wolf is trying to look tougher than the others, scenting the blood of a weak leader and warring over the direction the party might take. This has led to policy proposals that have more to do with machismo than political or economic viability.

Let's take a closer look at a few of those proposals. Firstly, the idea that some people (variously "the unemployed" and "those who are out of work") should have their benefit entitlement gradually reduced if they fail to find work within set periods of time. This may at first sound like a reasonable way to treat the long term unemployed (rather less so if it includes, say, people who are too severely disabled to work), but it rests on the presumption that they are unemployed by choice. If indeed some are (and research suggests this group is small), that still leaves at least two other groups - those who live in areas where there is no work, and those who are effectively unemployable due to lack of skills. The former group can be expected to grow in size with the removal of housing benefit from younger people forcing them back into their parental homes and making it effectively impossible for them to migrate to areas where their prospects might be brighter (something which will also be damaging to employers). In neither case will the prospects of these people gaining employment be increased by reducing their financial means, as this will not only restrict their mobility further but will make it harder for them to dress and present themselves in a way likely to impress prospective employers, as well as making it harder for them to engage in training programmes. In short, whilst it may function as a political distraction from the real problems facing the country, it is economic nonsense. Its political advantage can exist only in the short term as sooner or later high unemployment figures are going to reach a point where they stop being seen as a consequence of inherited economic crisis and start being seen as a consequence of a Conservative government. No matter how desperate things may be, it's better not to shoot that albatross.

Speaking of increasing the unemployment figures (or at least changing people's perception of them), there's the proposal that everybody should be obliged to work for thirty five hours per week, with pert time workers obliged to take on extra hours or find second jobs. The logic behind this one is encapsulated in Ruth Davidson's speech, in which she made clear that she thinks of economic contributions only in terms of income tax, with no conception of the importance of the informal economy. To put it simply, many people in long term part time work are in that position because they have other commitments. If work obligations (under threat of the withdrawal of benefits) mean that they can no longer pick up their children from school or tend to the needs of their elderly parents, etc., the state will have to step in, at considerably increased cost. Then there are those who work part time because they are too ill to work full time. I'm in that bracket. Just now, if asked if I'm fit for work, I'll say yes (though actually even Atos would most likely rule otherwise); I can write and I am able to make some money that way. But if 'fit for work' came to mean being fit, every week, to do at least thirty five hours, I would have to say no (the physical stress of trying would probably kill me within a month); so I and many people like me would be forced to drop out of work altogether, costing the state more in benefits, reducing our economic input, wasting our talents and making many of us miserable into the bargain - for no gain. And then, of course, there is the fact that there simply isn't enough work around to sustain everybody like this. If the government wants people in this position to be more economically active, the secret is not to demand an impossible increase in hours but to push for an increase in wages.

How do we increase wages? At base, by ensuring that employees are properly valued and that they understand the value of their labour. In contrast to this, George Osborne has proposed that employees agree to waive certain rights in return for shares in the companies for which they work. This is an interesting one. Many people have, understandably, rushed to criticise the erosion of rights (which encourages a rush to the bottom), but even some of them would probably agree that employee-owned companies are a fantastic way of promoting responsible Capitalism (as per the Japanese model). One wonders if Osborne has linked the two in order to toxify the latter. Many Conservatives would traditionally have supported it, but of late the party has increasingly moved away from its focus on supporting aspirational working people. Osborne may think he can sidestep EU red tape by persuading employees to give up their rights voluntarily; the legal reality is likely to be rather different. And there is one other key problem with this policy - the fact that in a recession, when apparently stable companies are going to the wall on a regular basis, employees signing such deals can have no guarantee that the shares they settle for will retain any value at all.

What's likely to come of all this? When the lion sheds its skin, it's all too easy to relax and think, well, it wasn't a wolf after all - it won't maul me too badly. So if we see less drastic benefit reductions that target only those on Jobseekers' Allowance; if we see only a subset of those in part time work forced to take on extra hours; and if we see employees effectively stripped of their rights by being legally disempowered (ref. the ongoing cuts in legal aid) rather than seeing the laws changed outright, a party which had a wolf's agenda from the outset will seem positively ovine.

Meanwhile, David Cameron should be as wary as the rest of us. As teeth are bared in Birmingham, he's in danger of looking woolly to his erstwhile friends.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


Last night, it seemed most people I knew were watching the documentary about Jimmy Savile. I couldn't. I had to wait until this afternoon, when it was daylight and I had trusted company and wouldn't have to face sleep for a while. I hope by the time you finish reading this, you'll understand why. For me, one of the most disturbing things in he documentary was the revelation that Savile had gifted one of his (alleged) victims a copy of his autobiography signed 'your keeper'. It's that aspect of perceived ownership of people and of experiences that I want to talk about here, because despite the many recent pieces I've seen written on this subject, it's something that I haven't see discussed in any depth. I think it's important to breaching the gulf between those who watched that programme wondering why nobody took action and those of us who live in a parallel world where we'd have much much more surprised if somebody had.

I haven't slept much over the past two weeks. It wasn't the programme itself so much as all the talk surrounding it, that triggered once again the flashbacks and the mornings where I'd wake up with my body full of fury as if I were in the middle of fighting someone off. That, and the build-up of recent cases of publicly discussed sexual abuse, rape and exploitation (whether alleged or confirmed, malicious or just plain stupid) from Julian Assange to Ched Evans, from Jeremy Forrest to the disappearance of little April Jones, never mind the perpetuation of rape myths by people like Tod Akin and George Galloway. All these cases merited media attention but it can be difficult when one is unable to go for a day without such reminders. So, I'm going to touch on some of my own experiences here, but I'm not after sympathy (which I struggle to know what to do with) and I certainly don't wish to suggest that everyone's experiences or reactions are the same. I simply wish to explain my perspective and to ask for your patience if I'm a little more emotional than is usual in my writing.

One question I have seen arise persistently in relation to that Savile case is "If they're true, why didn't these women report these incidents sooner?" Of course, some of them did, and were ignored, but let's focus on the others. I can see how this might be hard to grasp for some people - after all, would one hesitate to report a burglary or a traffic violation? - yet to me and many people like me the answer is so blindingly obvious that it's difficult to get across with the patience and restraint necessary to promote understanding. First of all, let me clarify that the person who abused me when I was a young child was not famous, yet I, like a substantial portion of those who experience child abuse, said nothing directly to anyone for almost twenty years. The reason was twofold. Firstly, whilst I was still in contact with that person, I wanted to avoid a confrontation. Secondly, I didn't want to think about it. I didn't forget, but whenever those thoughts arose I stomped them down. I'd have gone crazy otherwise. I felt I had a right to get on with my life, and it wasn't until I had psychologically adjusted to being in a safer environment that it all bubbled back up to the surface.

When one does start talking, there are consequences. For most of us that's centred on family relationships and friendships, but in a case where the assailant is famous, there must also be the understanding that it could easily end up all over the papers. Yes, complainants have a legal right to anonymity (which two in this case have bravely chosen to waive) but that can't make it any easier to see the intimate details of sex acts in which one was an unwilling participant splashed all over the news. This can make it impossible to get any time off from those persistent thoughts and memories, and it also makes a desperately personal part of one's life into public property.

This is one of the reasons why I didn't go to the police when, as an adult, I was sexually assaulted by a celebrity. I was walking back from a shopping trip when it happened. He was so drunk he probably doesn't even remember it. It was broad daylight. He approached me in the street and subjected me to a tirade of homophobic abuse, then grabbed at my genital. There wasn't much I could do about it. I have a muscle wasting disease and fragile bones. My priority had to be staying on my feet. Later I mentioned it to a friend who said he knew someone who had been persistently harassed by that particular guy. Just like with Savile, there are rumours. I know there were witnesses in my case. They did nothing. That's usual. People who could talk about it at no personal cost, but don't. I'm not convinced it would do any good for me to say something now. I'd have no material proof. And my experience has been that on the occasions when I have reported assaults to the police, nothing has come of it. I still suggest that option to others, so maybe I'm a hypocrite, but it's more hat I want hem to consider the choices available to them. I've also helped others to escape ad recover from abusive situations without reporting.

Another reason why I kept quiet about my experiences when I was younger is that I don't have a binary gender identity (I realise this may not be obvious from my physical appearance - although I am actually intersex, it's hard to look butch with a muscle wasting disease) and I didn't want to be forced into an ultra-feminine poor-helpless-little-thing role, there to be protected - effectively objectified. It wasn't until later that I came to understand many women loathe this too. It's illustrative of how victims of sexual abuse and assault are written out of their own narratives. It's easy to lose control, especially when there are so many people eager to step in and 'save' us (always after the fact), to be heroes, to win social acclaim without making a fraction of the effort that we've had to make just to survive. Of course this doesn't mean we never want or need help, but we can do without being told what to think.

One of the things I've been told is that I should forget about what happened to me. I should look to the future. I'm sure everyone who says this means well, but there's that gulf of understanding once again. Whilst I want very much for those memories to lose their power - it's been thirty five years and I still wake up screaming sometimes - they are my memories, part of my life, and if I disavow them then I lose part of myself. I want to be a fully integrated, whole person capable of coping with all my diverse experiences, not a book with pages missing. I can't help but feel that, some of the time, the request that people in my position forget is more about sparing others from having to think about our problems than it is about what we live with ourselves. Just like the way that other people try to manage the social stress of child abuse by placing undue focus on, or eliding, the sexuality of the victims.

I'm sure that even those who are guilty of it can understand why others get upset at the suggestion that children seduce their abusers. More difficult to deal with is the elision of young people's sexuality - and a type of focus on sex that misses the point of some of the ways in which abuse causes harm. Studies suggest that sex is indeed the prime motivating factor for some abusers (as opposed to, say, a desire for power); unwanted acts can be acutely distressing both to experience and to remember, as well as (in some cases) causing physical harm, so I don't want to minimise that. What I do want to do is expand the picture.

In a tangent to these recent discussions there has been a lot of focus on the age of consent. On of the failings of the way this works in the UK, to my mind, is that it doesn't take into account age gaps. In many countries it is legal, for instance, for someone aged fourteen to have sex with someone aged sixteen but not with someone older. This means that young people are not criminalised for having sexual relationships with their peers but that such relationships are understood to be different from those they might have with significantly older people. And there's that word - relationship. Because the age at which we start to desire and can cope with (and enjoy) sexual experiences is rarely going to be the same as the age at which we become capable of navigating complex power dynamics in a relationship. Young people can be at significant risk of exploitation and emotional abuse from older adults who understand the dynamics of human behaviour much better than they do.

Let's take the Forrest case - the maths teacher who ran away to France with one of his pupils. He seems to have believed he was doing it for love (or to have successfully persuaded himself of that). Perhaps his pupil felt that way too. Perhaps, had she been a few years older, no-one would have seen it as a sexually exploitative relationship (and I hope for her sake, in her experience, it wasn't - and that no-one obliges her to feel violated). But it was still abusive in other ways, because Forrest was old enough to understand that this action, at the point when she was studying for vital exams, could seriously screw up the rest of her life. In that context, regardless of anything else, his actions were self-centred and callous.

There's just one thing that makes me hesitate when talking about cases like this - and I'm speaking in the abstract now, because I certainly don't wish to imply anything about specific individuals. It's this: could an individual who leaps at an opportunity to run away from home be doing so in order to escape an abusive situation there? And that's the thing - that's the shift of perspective at the heart of these discussions. I don't want to feel that way. I don't want to be paranoid or to look at the world and perceive everything as potentially hostile (even if that paranoia may have saved my life on a couple of occasions). I didn't want, as an older child, to wince when I saw kids sitting on Savile's knee in Jim'll Fix It. He could be a perfectly decent guy, I told myself. But watching that, even then, triggered that instinct in me. Jim gave out amazing opportunities. Sitting on his knee was the price one had to pay or it. At that age, I saw pretty much all interactions with adults that way. If one wanted or needed something, one had to be prepared to put up with a little unpleasantness to keep the adult happy.

Sometimes my instincts will be right and sometimes they'll be wrong. At a practical level, I'll always try to assess people calmly and rationally, but, after so many years, I doubt the way I feel will ever change. This is what child abuse does. If Savile were alive, said a lawyer in that documentary, he couldn't fairly be taken to trial over an incident thirty years ago which he'd be unlikely to remember clearly. That may indeed be fair. Perhaps, right up until his death, he lived in the same world as those of you who have never been hurt in that way. I live in a different world and every time I make contact with the wider one I have to cross a cognitive gulf. I am asking those of you who read this to dare to try and cross that gulf in the other direction. To take a look at my world (which is full of people with similar histories) and to try and rethink your assumptions. Some survivors will fit a more conventional, more comfortable narrative sculpted by others, but those of us on the other side are still human and have a right to be recognised in the human story.

Monday, 1 October 2012

In Development

This Wednesday the Scottish Government will be announcing its new National Parenting Strategy at the Parenting Across Scotland conference in Edinburgh. The policy is aimed at providing better to services to families of all shapes and sizes across the country, to ensure that young people get the best possible start in life. But what can it realistically hope to achieve, what does it need to tackle, and why should wider Scottish society invest in it?

As a queer person I probably know more childless people that average. Whilst Pope Benedict may be taking it a little far when he says that homosexuality threatens the future of the species, the fact is that lgbt people raise significantly fewer children than straight parents and many older gay men, who never had the option of adopting, have adopted a way of looking at the world that entirely elides parenthood. Of course, some straight people are unable to have children, or decide they don't want to, and recent academic work such as that by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has problematised the assumption that every woman experiences maternal instincts. So I have quite often been asked "Why should I pay taxes to raise other people's kids? What's in it for me?" Like it or not, this is a key question when it comes to policy making.

The answer is not a difficult one but it can be difficult to sell. Children are an investment - not just for their parents but for society as a whole. Most of us will be old some day and age is a disabling process. If we want to retire or have care available for us when we are unable to be self-sufficient, we had better hope there's a new generation of capable people in the workforce, driving a strong economy. "Oh, but I have savings!" said one of my friends in response to this, misunderstanding the flexible nature of the value of money. This kind of attitude, together with the usual tendency to short termist thinking, present barriers that need to be overcome in putting forward a policy of this sort. They are particularly challenging for politicians on the left, who are frequently assumed to be driven by sentimental ideology rather than an understanding of economic issues.

And this is an economic issue. Parenting strategies have been put forward by successive governments. Some have been quite successful, but we have always struggled, as a nation, to raise more than 90% of our children out of poverty. This is because any policy that is going to be effective needs serious money behind it. Not only will this, over time, help us to build a stronger economy; it will also help us to reduce some specific financial burdens. That lost 10% (and more) of children doesn't just represent human suffering. It represents people who are more likely to face long term unemployment and more likely to end up in prison. If we don't invest now, we pay later.

That poverty is the most pressing problem for child welfare in Scotland is pretty much universally acknowledged. It's a problem that is getting worse as Westminster spending cuts disproportionately impact low income families, particularly where there are also disability issues (a key factor in child poverty). Distressing though this is, it would be folly to think that sufficient funds can be raised to tackle it at a stroke, especially in a political climate where there is considerable negativity around welfare; so what can be done right now to tackle some of the most serious difficulties whilst longer-term, larger-scale anti-poverty strategies develop?

Answering this question depends on cross-departmental working, and it's pleasing to see that this is something the Scottish government understands (though how well it will work in practice remains to be seen). Poor coordination, rivalry and duplication of work between departments is one of the biggest avoidable wastes of money in modern governmental structures all around the world, so it's good to see this kind of practice encouraged in any context. It's particularly important here because an effective parenting strategy must have the involvement of health, education and social security specialists at the very least. It must begin with high quality maternity care and helping prospective parents plan before a baby is born, but it mustn't end when children pass the point at which politicians want to kiss them and reach that where they risk being hugged by David Cameron. Children and their parents must be supported even when they're not cute, and we must acknowledge that it's often the least appealing kids - the most easily scapegoated ones - who need the most help.

It is also, very often, the least politically appealing families who are in need of help. This includes single mothers, frequently stigmatised and blamed for their predicament whilst little prejudice attaches itself to fathers who walk out. It includes young parents who often face extra financial difficulties and a steeper learning curve as well as social prejudice (a friend of mine in this situation had stones thrown at her when she was eight months pregnant). It includes alcoholics and drug addicts who need specialised support if they are to overcome their problems and successfully commit to parenthood. And it includes situations in which what is best for the child may be at odds with what is socially valued - supporting unconventional families or even helping troubled couples to separate.

I've heard many people say that they didn't feel ready to have kids until they were with someone whom they could never imagine wanting to leave. Personally, I'm inclined to think that it is advisable for couples to imagine splitting up before they have children. Research increasingly shows that children growing up after amicable divorces do better than children in homes where there is continual, miserable friction between their parents (even where that doesn't spill over into violence). A successful parenting strategy cannot afford to be based on social ideals - it must be based on lived realities, taking account of what works for individuals and, first and foremost, what can be done to make individual children feel happy and secure.

Happiness, despite being the focus of increasing scientific scrutiny, is still an undervalued aspect of life. It is important, in developing a strategy of this kind, to think not only of what children need but of what they want - to make room for play. That means preserving safe outdoor spaces, be they playgrounds or sports fields, in the face of financial pressure on councils to sell off land for development. It means providing social spaces for teenagers where they can spend time safely out of the family home, easing pressure on everybody. It means giving city kids access to the countryside and country kids access to the city. And it means funding specialist youth organisations that work with young people who find themselves marginalised.

The government has acknowledged that there is a lot of good work going on in these areas already and that the important thing is to draw it together, taking best practice examples from different groups and applying them, whether through government initiatives or the third sector, so that proper provision exists for children throughout Scotland. Sadly, many parents in marginalised groups are unaware of the help that's already out there, and this needs to be remedied. Others are afraid of any contact with helper organisations because they feel stigmatised to the point where they fear their children may be taken away. The government needs to send a clear signal that it is on the side of families and to develop communications strategies that inspire confidence - to show that t is there to help rather than to disapprove.

Unifying service provision must also involve an investment in true accessibility. Services must adapt to account for the needs of disabled parents and children, of those who don't speak much English and of those resident in hard-to-reach areas. This isn't just about intervening more specifically in individual cases - it's about building faith, on the part of parents, that services are truly focused on them, and thereby improving outreach and uptake more generally. To truly make this strategy work, the talking must continue once the initial consultation is over - the strategy must reflect the ongoing, changing needs of parents and children in a changing Scotland.