Saturday, 14 June 2014

Iain Duncan Smith and the Scrounger Narrative

Iain Duncan Smith responding to Salma Yaqoob
I do, fairly regularly, get annoyed at things that happen on Question Time. That's kind of what it's for. It's an hour of cathartic irritation at politicians who do everything they can to avoid questions. And that's fine. I tend to see mine and many people's roles on twitter as being those standing at the sides throwing rotten fruit and mocking ties.

But the anger I felt at Iain Duncan Smith on Thursday was something different.

During the show, he'd been having a shockingly easy time of it. Despite the relative rarity of having a secretary of state on Question Time, either no questions were asked that were about his direct work or none were selected.

However, Salma Yaqeeb, the head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, made things a little bit more difficult - albeit after being repeatedly shouted over and interrupted by the male panelists in an uncomfortable display that made me disappointed in both Chris Bryant and Ian Hislop.

She immediately became a twitter darling when she said to Iain Duncan Smith:

"I’m sitting next to Iain Duncan Smith who labels poor people as scroungers when you claim £39 for a breakfast, like you can’t afford your own breakfast, and you live on your wife’s estate and have taken a million pounds of taxpayers’ money, that’s what I call scrounging."

To which Duncan Smith replied, with an air of offended sensibilities and personal outrage:

"What a load of old nonsense. I have never, ever labelled them as scroungers at all."

I actually believe that he doesn't use the term. He's taken George Osborne to task about it and has also talked about how his party have got the language wrong. So, yes. I totally believe he has never called them scroungers.

But that's not the point. The point is that he has labelled them scroungers, repeatedly and intentionally. The point is that he has created, established and maintained the narrative of people on benefits being scroungers.

Here are just some of the headlines you'll find when you google search 'Iain Duncan Smith Scroungers'. If he was so upset about labelling people 'scroungers', don't you think he'd have had something to say about these headlines?

Benefits system is broken! UK's top scroungers on £300-a-week more than the average family

February 24, 2014

Mr Duncan Smith said: “Benefits were out of control and people were rightly outraged at some households receiving far more in benefits than the ordinary hard-working family.

“We have fixed this broken system by introducing a fair limit to make sure the system works for taxpayers who fund it. Our reforms ensure claiming benefits is no longer a more attractive option than being in work.” 

Workshy told scrounging no longer an option in new benefits crackdown

December 28 2013

Duncan Smith said: “The decision to claim benefits should no longer be considered a lifestyle choice.

“This will make it clear that looking for work requires as much effort and commitment as a full-time job.”

Disabled people once again branded as scroungers

15 May 2012

Dicussing a Telegraph interview, in which Iain Duncan Smith says that the number of claimants has risen by 30 percent in recent years “rising well ahead of any other gauge you might make about illness, sickness, disability”. Losing a limb should not automatically entitle people to a pay-out, he suggests.

2015 starts now: Tories get tough on scroungers and immigrants

18 February 2013

Speaking on the Marr Show, Duncan Smith said: "My view of life is simple – we make sure our door is shut to those who want to come and claim benefits and is open to those who want to come and contribute and work and make this economy good and strong."

Government declares war on Benefits Street's scroungers

January 23 2014

He added: "Our real success has been to reframe the argument (emphasis mine) – challenging a narrative beloved of the left … which focuses so exclusively on how much is being spent on welfare that it risks overlooking the real question: it is not about how much goes into the benefit system, but what difference it makes to people at the other end."

4,000 jobless singletons raking in benefits worth more than £23,000 to be hit by lower benefits cap for people living alone

12 August 2013

‘For those eyeballing benefits as a one-way ticket to easy street, I have a wake-up call for you: those days are over,’ he writes.

2015 starts now: Tories get tough on scroungers and immigrants

Monday 18 February 2013

Speaking on the Marr Show, Duncan Smith said: "My view of life is simple – we make sure our door is shut to those who want to come and claim benefits and is open to those who want to come and contribute and work and make this economy good and strong."

There are plenty more.

Iain Duncan Smith doesn't want to be called out for labelling people scroungers. But he has pushed the narrative time and time and time and time and time and time again.

The idea that our government would intentionally create this narrative and then try to distance itself from it makes me angry.

The idea that Iain Duncan Smith has pushed a narrative about scroungers when so many of them are people that need our help makes me angry.

The idea that he categorises human beings as job seekers who aren't pulling their weight enough or people with mental or physical issues preventing them from working as fraudsters in a country where these benefits can make the difference between life and death makes me angry.

The idea that Iain Duncan Smith can do all of this again and again and again and again over years, but get upset and offended because he avoids using a specific word, the idea that he would try to abdicate responsibility for his own clear and repeated actions, the idea that he would try to turn it into a narrative about words instead... that just disgusts me.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Remembering Rik Mayall

I'm expecting this to get lost. It's the one thing that's making me feel like I'm not jumping on a bandwagon or trying to make this all about me. I'm expecting the outpouring of emotion and memories about Rik Mayall to be so enormous that this is just going to be one of the flow.

I'm 34 and I'm not quite sure how that's happened. It seems to have happened incredibly quickly, because somehow, Rik Mayall was a big part of my life a long time ago. It seems and feels like it was still fairly recent, because his death brings so many vivid memories flooding forward that it feels like I've only just experienced them. But I mention my age because it puts me squarely in a generation that grew up with Rik Mayall.

The first thing that I remember him from was The Young Ones - specifically, The Young Ones singing 'Living Doll' with Cliff Richard. It was anarchic and it was silly and it was a little bit rude (at least, the bits that I understood) and I was absolutely blown away by it. I immediately became a huge fan of The Young Ones, whenever I was able to see it.

Looking back, I've no idea what my parents were playing at, letting me watch The Young Ones at that age. But I'm exceptionally glad that they did. Well, I'm not actually that surprised that they did. I was of the age where so many of the jokes went over my head that all I really had was the sheer silliness and the characters.
We forget, I think, that we were accepting of so much stuff going over our heads as children. It's like growing up and realising just how much of Grease was actually about sex, because you were young enough to just not know what 'flogging your log' was. There was so much stuff flying over our heads that you mainly asked about the things that you needed to understand for plot reasons. Danny's going home to flog his log... I think I associated that a bit with log rolling or something else boring that he'd rather do than hang around with the others.

 But with Rik Mayall, there wasn't that need. He was just funny - naturally and consistently. He had an incredible energy, a dangerous and manic quality that meant you couldn't help but watch him. The next thing I saw him in was Blackadder as Lord Flashheart. A character that's onscreen in total over two episodes for about 15 minutes and yet is one of the most immediately recognisable and quotable characters ever written in comedy. When I realised that Flash and Rick were played by the same actor, I just fell in love.

It helped that Mayall had a beautifully childlike quality about him, which made him a natural for story-telling, which he seemed to enjoy just as much as anyone listening when he gleefully played around with inevitably disgusting details. It felt a little bit like he was recognising and encouraging something in the children that adored him, which made it all feel a bit naughty and yet freeing.

It was this quality that likely saw the creation of Drop Dead Fred - a movie that doesn't quite work, but through no fault of the full-on performance by Mayall that's made it a favourite of lots of people in their early-to-mid-thirties. He just threw himself about the screen like a cross between Miranda Richardson's Queenie and a Looney Tunes character. A film that was a little grown up for a kid's audience but a bit too childish for an adult audience, I can't help but wonder how it could have worked with someone like Sarah Silverman opposite Rik, able to tap into the little girl that would have been just as manic as Mayall.

As much as I loved the work that he did in the UK (especially Bottom and the New Statesman), I always felt a little like he was underestimated as a talent. The at-times-stunning Rik Mayall Presents - a short series of one-off stories, usually showing a more serious side to his phenomenal acting ability - displayed him at his peak. Dark, sympathetic or just pathetic... he was an amazingly versatile actor. Kevin Turvey, Rick, Richard Richard, Drop Dead Fred and Alan B'Stard. While you never forgot that you were watching Rik Mayall, all you'd need is a second of any of them to recognise them instantly. Most comedians never get to create one iconic character. Mayall created numerous. There may have been some DNA in common between them, but you'd never mistake one for the other.

Bottom was, of course, magnificent - the live shows were riotously funny at times, and showed off how much fun he seemed to be having sometimes. Sadly, that fun wasn't always there. Mayall could, by some accounts, be awkward and arsey at times, especially following the quad bike accident that almost (and technically did) kill him. Suffering from long-term effects of the accident, it appears that his frustration occasionally made him difficult to work with.

He worked less after he recovered from the accident, but there were still flashes of the brilliance that had been there before. I'd always hoped that he'd have a late autumn in his career, ideally moving towards more straight acting. He was incredibly charismatic and the intensity that he carried as a performer always put me in mind of Jack Nicholson. I'm not intending to exaggerate when I say that I absolutely believe he could have been that good.

If I feel sad now, it's because for all his talent and for all his achievements, it still never feels like Rik Mayall got the opportunities on a worldwide basis that seemed due. I always thought it would happen one day. I always wanted his talent to get more recognition. I wish I'd kept up with more of his work in recent years, because he's a performer I always enjoyed watching.

As it is, though, I don't feel that sad. I feel lucky and many of us should. I got to grow up watching Rik Mayall, that dangerous jester that appeared to terrify adults while sharing a wink with the children. He let us in on the joke and the jokes were fantastic. Rik Mayall is one of the greatest performers ever to have been on television. It is obviously sad that he has died, but it was a privilege to be alive when he was.