UKIP and entitlement

I’ve heard two truly great speeches live. One was by Tony Benn and the other was by my A-Level economics teacher. I know this blog is about HR(ish), but some of the noise from UKIP has stirred a memory of that speech by my teacher.

I was lucky enough go to grow up in a part of the country where grammar schools still provide, essentially, a free public school education. It’s worth checking this map to see the uneven distribution of grammar schools in the UK. It’s also a part of the country where a disproportionate amount of people can afford to pay for a public school education anyway.

I went to school in Royal Tunbridge Wells. It was a bit like Hogwarts without the magic. When you are 16 years old it feels like your entitlement. A great education and then a nice life somewhere leafy. The large proportion of my school will have gone on to have good careers in established professions, some will have gone on to senior roles in government, the military and industry. It’s just the way it works.

Except that as I grow older I recognise that the access to power and influence isn’t strongly correlated to people being a worthwhile human beings. In that way it really doesn’t work. It’s not that I went to school with bad people, it’s just that there is a richness or depth of experience that most of us didn’t have access to that you need to truly understand the wider world. We grew up in relative shelter, but with disproportionate influence.

I studied Economics for A-Level, except that I didn’t really study it because I had no work ethic whatsoever. If you ever want evidence of grade inflation it is simply that I got an A when my revision consisted of reading the textbook on the day of the exam, over a cup of tea, whilst playing snooker at my friend Dan’s house. That is how we rolled in Kent.

Achievement, status and effort quite regularly were divorced from each other.

My school used to ‘invite’ individuals who were struggling with Economics to move to study Business Studies instead. Business Studies was easier. The result of this was that I was in a good school, studying economics, where the wheat and chaff (academically) had effectively been sorted. In the room that I studied economics, you had (theoretically) the best of British.

Within a few weeks of starting the term it became clear that you can’t really separate economics and politics. Your view of what a government should do to influence economic behaviour is anchored in your concept of right and your understanding of how and why people act. We didn’t have much to work on in terms of life experience.

On my left sat a chap who has gone on to become an award winning economist. On my right sat the kind of person who now votes UKIP. Let’s run through his mindset.

The following were absolute truths that were recognised about foreigners

  • They were poorly educated
  • They came over here to take our jobs
  • They came over here to sponge off our benefits system
  • They were criminals
  • They weren’t all bad – but you know the ones that I’m talking about.

After one of these diatribes he provided a nice nod to me by saying ‘I’m not talking about you Dave, because you were born in this country, so you are only a bit foreign, and you are in a good school’ – yes, that conversation actually happened. I wasn’t sure whether to say thanks or just ignore it. There was a lot to process.

After about half a term of this mentality being applied to every economic and social problem we discussed our teacher felt moved to give one of the best addresses I have ever heard. It is the kind that I wish popped up more often on Question Time – or just in life more generally.

To protect the guilty we’ll call the individual involved Tarquin. Tarquin had just finished a speech on the economic necessity of closing the borders. This is how I remember the response. I really hope it was as good as I remember it.

“Jesus…just…Jesus Christ young man… you dumbfound me with your prejudice, you really do. I have no fucking idea how kids like you can get an education this good and still end up so stupid, I can’t begin to understand it. You are given access to all this knowledge and privilege and the best you come up with is reasons why other people shouldn’t get access to it? You really are an idiot. Even worst than that you are a bigot. You are a bigoted idiot.

 

I walked into the staff room the other day and overhead someone talking about bigoted behaviour – so I ambled across and asked them if, just guessing, they were talking about you and they were. You are a known bigot. We have such low expectations of your moral fibre its almost tragic. I know that you justify some of your comments by the fact your father is a banker, as if that is all we need to know, but let me tell you that whilst it might count for something in Tunbridge Wells, it doesn’t dictate right or wrong in the real world. Nobody gives a shit. I’ve seen the real world, it has no resemblance to what you describe as the UK when you open your mouth to give us another taste of your prejudice.

 

You’ve been studying economics with me for some time now and you are still unable to explain to me how these ‘foreigners’ are both claiming the dole and stealing your jobs and all without being educated enough to do either. I can understand why you, as an idiot, should be concerned about someone with a modicum of sense and ambition stealing your job, but the other folks in this room really shouldn’t worry about that.

 

I can see you are starting to cry so I’m going to stop talking to you, but I’m also going to ask you not to talk to me until you can give me some semblance of an idea that might make sense in terms of economic theory and the real world. All you offer me currently is that your father taught you to be scared of foreigners and that 6 years of education at this school hasn’t managed to undo that. Next time you speak please offer something that gives me some more confidence in both your intelligence and basic human nature.

 

If you can’t then just shut up and listen to these other gentlemen. I’ll mark your work fairly, but I have no time for your ideas being circulated in this classroom or elsewhere”

When I hear UKIP talking I hear people with a fear of ‘their’ world being taken over. I hear the voice of people who have just enough power to want to keep other people out of it. Who understand the politics of suspicion and greed. I don’t hear the voice of the people, I hear the fears of people being stoked. I hear the worst of human nature being manipulated. I hear hypocrisy and a sneering aggression. I hear an absence of compassion masked as concern. I hear arguments that didn’t pass muster when I was 16.

I hear nothing that gives me confidence in intelligence or human nature. I hear people who dumbfound me with prejudice.

The fact the traditional party system has left us with a void doesn’t mean we should tolerate it being filled with poison. Or incoherent nonsense.

 

 

 

 

One identifiable victim – consequences for many

The look in the woman’s eyes was suspicious and apologetic all at once. I was travelling in London for the first time since 7/7 and the woman was joining a few other passengers in slowly moving down the carriage, away from my friend and I. It wasn’t as subtle a move as they had hoped. 

My friend is Iranian (or just from Sunderland; definitions of how many generations it takes to be British get unclear when people are scared) and I’m dark skinned (Portuguese extraction), always sporting an unkempt beard when I’m not working and I was carrying a rucksack for good measure.

I found the situation sad, scary and a little bit humorous. Sad, because I never want to be the cause of discomfort to others. Scary, because I could see how much the world had changed. Humorous, as I desperately wanted to explain that we were just heading into town to watch the football and have a pint – hardly sinister. My rucksack contained dirty underwear, deodorant and a toothbrush. My friend said it was a reaction he had become used to.

After 9/11 I was unable to travel through airports without getting searched. I just look like a terrorist. If you drew a mental picture of a terrorist you would end up with me. Security normally takes me longer than my wife but that is fine. I would rather security were stopping people who look like me, it isn’t a perfect system – but I understand the intent is to protect not to victimise.

So that is the context. I’m not a terrorist, but people sometimes check if I’m Muslim before beginning a uneducated ‘them and us’ rant.
How are people reacting to yesterday’s attack?

Having one clearly identifiable victim, as we have in the incident in Woolwich, has a hugely powerful psychological impact. We struggle to conceive of the damage a World War or an event like 9/11 causes, so we just acknowledge it as horrible and undesirable – but we think of numbers of people, not actual people. Our brain just can’t conceive of all of the people and relationships involved.

When you have one victim it is easier to relate to. That is why charities often show you one person and then name them in order to encourage you to donate money.
  • A million people starving? Tragic, but remote and I can’t help them all
  • One baby crying? Emotions kick into overload

One person was murdered in Woolwich yesterday. A person being killed in London isn’t an exceptional event, but the following things make this a really dangerous and potentially significant event – because they form a perfect storm of elements likely to provoke a disproportionate reaction
  • it was in daylight. We like to think of daylight as being safer, bad things happen at night don’t they? 
  • it happened to a member of the armed services. If it can happen to someone trained to defend himself then we are all vulnerable
  • it was in London, so statistically more people will feel it happened locally than if it had happened elsewhere 
  • it was an attack that reinforced stereotypes. A raving, knife wielding religious zealot. 
  • it was a person with dark skin – and the easiest and laziest definition of British would automatically exclude them. The religious/ethnic/race differentiation can be easily simplified if we just suspect people who aren’t light skinned

What I saw immediately afterwards in terms of response is as much of a problem for this country as the actual, tragic event.

  • within a few minutes Twitter was ablaze with rumour about the event. If you post enough half truths some of them will stick
  • the government convened COBRA. I hope they are acting on further information we aren’t aware of, otherwise they are giving out the message that the country is under seige in response to one murder. If the murderer had been shouting about having an objection to war based in belief in another religion (Christianity…) would the response have been the same? There are just over 10 murders a week in the UK
  • there was an immediate flurry of tributes on Facebook. Evocative pictures of poppies etc. If you read the comments you will see a degree of hate and bile that does no justice to the memory of a soldier. Just people stirring things up and allocating the blame to whoever they consider to not be ‘us’ 
  • there was disagreement in the live feed from the BBC as to whether the term ‘Muslim looking’ was acceptable

In the months following 9/11 Americans didn’t want to fly. A study has shown that more people died in car accidents caused by this change of behaviour than in the actual event itself. We overestimate the likelihood of ‘dread events’ – terrorist attacks, shark attacks etc – and make bad choices as a result.

The UK needs to ensure that there is a measured response to this act, so that the consequences of this new act aren’t felt more than they need to be. Where would you like the government’s focus to be today? Dealing with the crisis in the NHS – a failing that causes pain for millions – or focusing on one horrific event. Logic dictates you help millions, public and press dictate you make speeches.

Factors exist are that could make this event hugely inflammatory (check the newspaper headlines today). I found someone moving down a train carriage a few years ago a bit humorous, but that is only because I thought that would pass.

There seems to be a groundswell of uneducated and poorly thought out reaction creeping into mainstream Britain, that suggests suspicion and casual racism may be here to stay and even become the norm.

And the poster boy for the next wave of hate and suspicion might be a poor man just going out for a walk in London.

One identifiable victim.


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Note: I welcome comments on this blog – but I’ll delete any that offend reason or are designed to offend others. Thanks.

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Sources:

Dread Risk
Identifiable victim effect