In just a few days, the role of SNP Women’s and Equalities Convener will cease to exist. I have had the honour of filling it for its last year, in an incredibly challenging time for our country, our world and our party.
Marginalised people are on the frontline of every political battleground – we are the ones most affected by austerity, climate change, Brexit, Universal Credit, and more. We are the ones whose lives are on the line every day. We know how to navigate these systems because we deal with them every day, and our insight is essential. Putting our voices at the centre of these discussions is the only way for Scotland to become the country we know it can be, and the National Equalities Forum, convened by the Equalities Convener, will be how we ensure those voices get heard.
It is clearer than ever that independence for Scotland is the only way for us to become a fair and equal society, with our human rights protected. As we have watched the UK descend into chaos, as xenophobia and hate crime rise, targeting the most vulnerable or marginalised people in society, we have the option of a better way to live. For us to create the decent society we want Scotland to be, Equalities must be at the heart of everything we do.
The constitutional changes of last year reflect this principle – as of the end of this conference, we will have a much wider representative group at the heart of the SNP. The new National Equalities Forum is an exciting step towards real inclusion, and I would like your vote to be the Convener who brings it together!
It has been an incredible honour to be the Women’s and Equalities Convener this year. There is ongoing work that I hope to be able to continue, but here are some of the things I’ve been doing to make the SNP a more inclusive party:
With Morag Fulton, Convener of the Disabled Members Group, October 2018
With the SNP BAME Network, December 2018
At Rise Up, Quines! event for women in politics
At Out For Indy launch event
The first thing to know is that much of the work of Convener takes place behind the scenes. For me, this year included things like:
Being involved with the new Conferences Committee, highlighting equalities issues in submitted resolutions, or advocating for including resolutions which apply to a relatively small proportion of the party but which are nonetheless important to address.
Writing guidance for the new Candidate Assessment Panels to highlight unconscious biases in previous assessment processes. The guidance covered such issues as seeing canvassing record as the key measure of commitment, when canvassing is inaccessible to many people who still prove their commitment in other ways.
Discussing and researching ways to create balancing mechanisms for candidate selections which address gender and other equalities strands.
Helping develop the new Access Fund, which allows for inclusion on a much larger scale.
Being an initial point of contact for people experiencing harassment and ensuring they have the support they need.
Working with the Disabled Members’ Group to assess the accessibility of the October Conference venue, highlighting possible issues and ensuring that the venue will be prepared to adapt to various different access needs.
Beginning work on how to adapt our current processes for dealing with harassment and bullying into something which works for a mass-membership party.
More visibly, I have also been –
Setting up Out For Independence.
Giving talks at branches around the country.
Speaking at events as an SNP Women’s and Equalities representative on the impact on marginalised people of Brexit, an unleashed Tory government, climate change, the new social security powers in Scotland and why independence is the only way for us to create a fair and equal society in Scotland.
Speaking online in support of Women’s and Equalities issues.
Challenging bigotry and supporting marginalised people who are targeted.
Providing information on the new Equalities structure and on some of the more common discussions around LGBT rights branches might be dealing with.
Even though the Convener role is a volunteer position, it takes up a vast amount of time. One of the main things I learned this year is how utterly essential the changes coming at Conference are – one person carrying the entire remit by themselves is unsustainable and unhealthy. While the new Equalities roles will bring their own challenges, it will no longer be a single person juggling every aspect of the work, all of which are priorities.
With Shirley-Anne Somerville at Dundee Pride
EU Polling Day
With Christian Allard at EU Election launch
I will use the new structure and powers invested in the Equalities Convener to:
Get Women’s Officers, Equalities Officers and any dedicated Equality Strand Branch Officers in touch with each other. This networking was an aim of mine from last year, which I made some progress towards but did not yet complete. I hope I’ll be able to continue the work, but with the added energy and skills of the National Equalities Forum, the process should speed up.
Continue working on the anti-harassment and bullying protocols, and look at a framework to deal with more abstract forms of structural harm.
Work with the other Conveners and affiliated groups through the National Equalities Forum to develop a Knowledge Base for members and elected representatives.
Insist on the ability to contact members who have told us they want to be contacted. I have been pushing for this for some time, but I hope that the combined authority of the NEF will speed this up.
Catriona MacKenzie and me
At Spring Conference
Visiting Elgin Branch
On the ferry to Shetland
The new Equalities Convener will have a complex job ahead: activists from all equalities strands are so used to fighting for resources, all across society, that shared solidarity and the ability to work together as one Forum will require careful discussions and balancing.
I have good working relationships with people from all the equalities strands, and understand the need to recognise not just each strand, but how the different forms of marginalisation affect each other. Many people in our party are dealing with more than one kind of barrier, and it’s the job of the Equalities Convener to approach these problems in a way which recognises these intersections.
NEC in Shetland
NEC in Uddingston
NEC in Glasgow
NEC in Clackmannanshire
The SNP is right to be proud of its record as a progressive party, but we still have a lot of work to do. These Constitutional changes are crucial to creating an inclusive party. If I am chosen by the membership as Equalities Convener, I will work with the National Equalities Forum to deliver a safe, welcoming, inclusive SNP.
Cradle2Grave is our new campaign, to coincide with the release of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ – Ken Loach’s new film that won all the awards over the summer, about the benefits system in the UK and how it’s destroying the people who need it. Please consider throwing a few quid in the pot so we can reach as many people as we can.
A number of the most active and vital activist groups for disabled people and poor people have worked on this together. We struggle to make our cause known for a lot of reasons – hostile media, hostile government, ableism, classism. But one of the more pressing reasons is that the starkest indicator of the problem can’t be reported on with the outrage and severity it deserves.
Suicide is well understood to be contagious, and in communities where people are struggling, irresponsible reporting can lethally endanger them. There are very strict guidelines for journalists when it comes to reporting on deaths by suicide to avoid these clusters. It should never be front page, methods should not be disclosed and reasons must be very carefully weighed because the risk of ‘statement suicides’ is high.
For our community, who have lost so many people over the months and years, this means we are restricted. The suicide rate is the most obvious and scariest result of Welfare Reform, though not the most widespread and not the only one. It is a vivid and moving statistic which should affect even the hardest hearts. But we can’t use it, not in a way which would be effective, because we have a duty of care to our community. So many people tell us it can’t be as bad as we say it is because they would have heard about it. But we can’t make them heard as anything other than an aggregate, or individually as dispassionate historic accounts. If we could talk about them as they happen, like we talk about the deaths of black people at the hands of the police, using their names, describing the horror of their deaths, we could make the murderous system we’re facing understood. But we can’t, because more people would die, and we’re trying to save them.
So, in the absence of the ability to make the severity of our situation completely clear, we need to reach out by other means. We need to talk about the poverty, the starvation, the isolation, the loss, the exacerbation of disease and disability. We need to talk about how this hurts everyone, how one in five people will need this help at some point and it needs to be fit for purpose. We need to make our voices heard over the venomous shrieks of ‘Scrounger! Lazy! Parasite! Worthless!’ and that takes money. The people who want us silent and gone have all the money they need, and they use it in abundance. We need your help. We are largely people at the mercy of this system ourselves, already sick, already disabled, trying to save our own lives and the lives of everyone else by ensuring the NHS and the welfare state, our country’s proudest triumphs, live on as the pillars of society.
Please help us. Please talk about this, tell people to look us up, donate if you can. Even a few pounds or euros or dollars makes a huge difference.
Two years ago from right now (00.01am on the 19th) I still had hope.
I was exhausted, because I’d been outside a polling station in the drizzle all day, smiling my heart out, infused with the knowledge that these few hours on a single day was the chance people had been fighting for for so long.
I’m going to repost below what I posted last year, because it’s still true. I just wanted to update that sentence in the middle (you’ll know it when you get to it).
It’s so much worse than we thought it would be on our worst days, the ones where we were told we were hysterical and fearmongering and conspiracy theorists.
Imagine if we’d told them back then that Boris Johnson would be our Foreign Secretary, that Theresa May, fresh from building a piece of legislation so invasive and dangerous that China sees it as a defence of their own surveillance, would be crowned Prime Minister after Labour detonated itself with an internecine war on socialism. Imagine if we’d told them that, not only had all those disabled people died in the years of the Tory government, but that people would decide that they wanted more of that and give them unfettered control. That Farage would see all his dreams fulfilled, and the new UKIP leader would point out that Theresa May, in her first months as PM, put into action almost the entire UKIP manifesto. That the Tories were successfully gerrymandering constituencies to ensure that only people on the electoral roll were counted as people, meaning that students, foreign nationals, children, and various other marginalised populations would no longer be properly represented.
Imagine if we’d told them we were leaving the EU, and that the aftermath of the vote had caused skyrocketing racist abuse, that an MP would be gunned down in the streets by a British nationalist in the weeks before.
I don’t know what kind of Scotland we would have been living in by now. It would have been difficult. We would have been angry at each other a lot of the time as we negotiated the construction of a nation. We would have been blamed for all kinds of ills. But it wouldn’t have been this living nightmare.
Tonight, I’m drinking to the dead. To the disabled people who haven’t made it this far because independence was their last hope. To the disabled people south of the border with even less.
Hope still exists, in little pockets here and there. I was at the Depute Leader’s Hustings yesterday, and there was hope. We see our politicians fighting every day that Westminster’s in session for human rights and fairness and support, so at least someone is opposing the dystopia. We are surviving. We’re holding on, because the fight goes on. And I hope. Still. Most of the time, anyway.
There is a strange, sweet cruelty about Facebook’s ‘Memories’ function: watching the different iterations of yourself go through times of joy and sorrow, which you remember the shape of but not the details. Each post is like a lens suddenly focusing, with sometimes razor-blade clarity.
It is September, and I am watching myself get ready for my wedding. Six years ago, I am scared of what might go wrong (with the event, not the marriage), excited to see everyone, recovering from the Swine Flu my body so thoughtfully picked up just two weeks before the date. I see everyone’s joy at how beautiful the day was, how much fun we had, how it was the best wedding they had been to. People talk about the music, share their photos. And then, a few days later, I start talking about how I am recovering. My chronic illness, which I made an executive decision to ignore on the day, is taking its toll. I expected this, so I am still sanguine about it.
Here in 2015, though, I know what’s coming. I know it will take me another two months before I am able to really move properly again, and it will be ten long, frustrating months before I am back to the level I was at the day before the wedding. I know that I will accept this as the price for a perfect day, but that it will be lonely and painful and mind-numbingly tedious. This is the cruelty of these Memories: we forget pain, we blur the edges of it so it can’t cut us anymore, and this simple social media function gives us back the full story.
It is September. I have been watching the Referendum campaign pick up pace. I wondered, back at the beginning of the year, whether I could have made more of a difference if I’d just started talking about it earlier. I couldn’t have made enough of a difference, I know that, but I still wonder. As the summer passed, the joy and hope of last year was a balm for the soul. Remembering that we had so much fun, how I came to be part of this group which is so central to my life now, how we thought if we could just show people what was possible they would join us. We’re reaching the last week now, though, and now the mood has changed. I want to yell back through time, but I don’t know what I could say. I think it isn’t me I want to yell to.
The great fallacy of the Referendum was that it was a choice between change and the status quo. It was never that. It was a choice between two types of change, and it was that realisation which made me switch sides. I was a lifelong Unionist, for many reasons, but chief among them was that the risk was too great. We had a good thing going, and giving it up for an outdated version of irrelevant patriotism was foolish. I became disabled when I was just 19, and the arguments about freedom and pride were nothing when set against the risk to the state on which my survival depended. Smashing the state is a lovely idea when you’re able-bodied and healthy, but when your life depends on a system of social security, risking all the disabled people for a flag seemed murderous.
Things began to change around the turn of the century. Rather than supportive, it became humiliating to seek the necessary help. People became spiteful, brittle, when talking about the welfare state. And then came the Tories. Whatever their electoral power was, their real success was the changing of the narrative. They turned ‘scrounger’ from a descriptor of a person committing fraud to ‘anyone claiming any assistance for any reason’. They lied, openly, in Parliament – something that surprisingly isn’t illegal. People began to die. In the midst of this, Scotland chose another way. I was hilariously antagonistic about the voting in of the SNP, who I saw as hopelessly idealistic and dangerous. I had no idea. I had no idea. I want to tell myself back then to actually read some research instead of relying on the prejudice I’d grown up with. I want to tell her to get involved then. That they were the only people who had both the power and the will to save lives. They tried to mitigate the worst of the effects, and while people kept dying in England and Wales, we had some respite. The Referendum was set. I was terrified. And then, one day, I realised I had been terrified of the wrong thing.
I was at a talk by Blair Jenkins in the village I grew up in. Someone asked about the risk of leaving the UK, and he, so simply, asked about the risk of staying. I missed the next few minutes of the talk while my world view tilted on its axis. I had read so much about the psychology of decision making, about risk taking, about willpower, about how we see our current situation as safe even when it isn’t and the change as dangerous even when it’s statistically much less risky. I just hadn’t applied it to the decisions I’d made before I read all that.
It is the last week of the Referendum campaign, and I am trying, with every shred of my soul, to trigger that understanding in everyone, anyone, else. I am disabled, and I see what’s coming. I know how bad it is going to be for us, if we lose. I know this is the one chance we have to save the lives of the hundreds, thousands of people who will suffer and die while the UK tries to figure out if it’s going to remember that the NHS and the Welfare State are our greatest triumphs or if it’s going to fully commit to following America into corporate oblivion. I am begging for my life and for the lives of the people like me, or who will become like me.
I want to talk to me a year ago, but I don’t know what I’d say. She is still hopeful, still desperate. She doesn’t know what’s coming. She thinks she does. She knows we’ll be punished for stepping out of line if we lose. Knows the dawn of a new country will be difficult and tense but worth it. Knows that losing means the fight for justice will become a symbolic struggle, that she can’t stop because stopping would be complicity, but that it will be useless in the face of TTIP, a Labour party who has forgotten who they are, a Conservative Party consumed by ideology and willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor and disabled in its pursuit. She can’t imagine how bad it will get. I can’t imagine what I’ll be reading a year from now, in 2016.
She doesn’t know how bad the loss will feel. That we will get so close and then sit and watch the No votes roll in, sobbing and devastated. That tears will come easily for months, whenever the loss is remembered. It will be like grieving. It will be grieving. I cannot imagine now what the Scotland we could have had would be like. It would have been so difficult: we would have been blamed for the oil price drop, of course, we would be in the midst of fighting for our assets, and we would have been scared and tense and it would have been so, so worth it. We would be watching the refugee catastrophe and finally feel that we can offer assistance and that we are no longer complicit with the Empire’s stranglehold on the world. The death statistics would have been published and we would have grieved with the marginalised people and be insistent that it is not the only way to run a society. We would be determined to show that austerity is not good for a country, only for a very tiny group of people right at the top, and that investment in people and services makes a country strong, not weak. We would be arguing, all the time, about how best to pursue justice, prosperity, support, and it would be wonderful, because our arguing would have purpose. We would have a chance at enacting our ideas, instead of sitting in our homes, numb with horror, talking amongst ourselves about what should be done but never will.
I can’t tell her any of that. It’s too late. We didn’t convince enough people in time. Instead, we’ll watch the memories tick past, day after day, blow after blow. I’ll still read them, though. It’s important to see where we’ve come from, where we still have to go. I am mortified by some of my past posts, by how ignorant and uninformed I was. I am thankful that I am learning. These memories give our lives context.
Six years ago, I am on a sofa, recovering slowly, surrounded by the people I love and newly married to the man I adore. Some of the friends who were there that day are gone from my life now, but I have new ones, and life goes on. A year ago I am looking forward to the new country we will build. Like Arundhati Roy, I can hear the better world breathing. Today, I am still adrift, casting about for the path to that better world. Maybe in a few years my Memories will show that we found it. I hope. Still, I hope.
One of my American friends commented recently that the ‘Glorious Britain‘ souvenir shop in Heathrow is stocked to the brim with icons which don’t seem to represent anything other than England and, in reality, don’t represent any of England outside of the square mile at the heart of London. Red double decker buses, red phone boxes, Beefeaters, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, the Palace of Westminster – all icons of London. So seeing the new post at Wings (where the photos are nicked from) about the new brand blitz made my head hurt.
Culture matters. It may seem like things like this are ridiculous trivialities to get upset about, but the symbols of a culture are important. It’s why kilts were outlawed in Scotland for so long, why we’re still having to fight to get the Scots language taken seriously (because language, more than anything, gives a people power). If you can reduce a culture to its most inoffensive aspects – for us, shortbread, whisky, haggis, Scottish country dancing, kilts – and then usurp even them, you can successfully eradicate a cultural identity. The first part was finished years ago, to the extent that the 2015 GE was covered by endless political cartoonists and commentators mocking us for these things.
We’re now into the second part, and here are the photos to prove it.
The icons printed on these products don’t imply Scotland’s part of a great union of countries in which each culture is respected and part of a bigger whole. They show that even the things we have managed to keep through centuries of having our culture intentionally suppressed and made as toothless and quaint as possible, all of it belongs to London.
This has been a rough campaign. Characterised by bitter rancour and apocalyptic predictions rather than reason and facts, a proxy civil war in the Tories has turned into something exhausting and dispiriting for the rest of us. I understand fully why people would be confused or even just no longer interested in participating in this circus of doom and bitterness.
I would like to put forward a case I haven’t seen much of in the media, if you’d give me a couple of minutes. The campaign may have been awful, but the vote itself is important, and I belong to one of the groups who will be deeply affected by the outcome. Please consider lending us your vote, because this is about more than trade and economics, it’s also about rights and protection of marginalised groups. If you want to skip the argument, just go right to the bolded paragraph at the end. That’s the important bit.
As dawn arrived the day after the General Election, and the decision made by the people of Britain was made clear, shock set in. Disability activists had been campaigning for years to make people aware of the crimes of the Conservative Party and the months leading up to the election had been a cry of rage and desperation from a population under siege. We had tried reason: statistics, studies, investigations, precedents, logic. Easily demonstrable and robustly verified links between Tory policy and lethal harm (a year after the election, they finally released the documents we’d been fighting for which demonstrated that they knew this link existed all along). We tried appeals to our common humanity: how would you feel if this was your family? If it was your child? If it was you? We tried reminding people that many voters would not be there to cast their ballot in this election because of Tory policy.
Many of us had temporarily set aside demanding the rights accorded to us as human beings to focus on the more pressing imperative: begging for our lives. We tried to make people understand that a vote does not just affect the person voting, but all of society (yes, Mrs Thatcher, it still exists), and we have a responsibility to consider the impact of our choices on others. We may choose to go ahead with our first impulse anyway, but we should do so knowing the cost.
That morning, some of us, including many stronger people than me who do this day after day, tried to delay our own grief and anger so we could better respond to the people checking in to various disability communities and groups. We needed to talk to each other, to talk to people who understood the implication of the result. We had to gather for crisis response as post after post after post came in with the single refrain: ‘I don’t think I will survive this government.’
We couldn’t tell them it would be OK, because it wouldn’t be. We could only tell them we had to fight, to not go quietly, not let them win. Just over a year later, we have lost a lot of people. We lost many more in the years before that. And now I am spending the last week of a political campaign bracing myself for the Friday morning I fear is going to echo that exhausting, heartbreaking, desperate day.
I think we are going to lose this vote, and, if we do, the disabled population of Britain will be at the mercy of a Tory party unleashed. There are four years left before the next General Election, and, whatever you think of the EU, the prospect of the Conservatives headed by any one of the contenders for leader, who all make Cameron look moderate, is unthinkable. The people who want Britain to remove itself from the European Court of Human Rights as soon as we’re done with the EU will be in charge, and then the only thing which keeps them in check will be gone. The EU is not the ECHR, but belonging to the ECHR is a political, if not legal, requirement of membership of the EU these days. It’s the ECHR which has given disabled people access to society, restored our rights of dignity, independence, family life. It is next on the block, and we are right there with it.
There are some disabled people who will vote for Leave. Some of them have good reasons, but many have been seduced by the narrative that resources in the fifth richest country in the world are so limited that we cannot save both disabled people and refugees, that we cannot house disabled people as well as immigrants, that we cannot treat disabled people and ‘foreigners’. The old joke applies: a Tory Minister, a disabled person and an immigrant are sat at a table, and they are brought a cake sliced into 12 pieces. The Tory takes 11 of them, then tells the disabled person to ‘Watch out for that immigrant, he’s trying to take your bit of cake.’ The resources are there, it’s the choice to prioritise them we’re missing.
Contrary to the hyperbole of both sides of the debate, most people will probably be fine, one way or another. There are so many good things I could say about the EU to make the positive case, but others are doing that. I am asking for a different reason. For most people, neither the Land of Milk and Honey nor the Apocalypse will appear, but there are populations in Britain for whom that is not the case. Most notable, given the tenor of the debate, are the people whose immediate living circumstances we are deciding on without giving them either a voice or a vote: the EU nationals who live in the UK. Many have lived here for decades, raised families, had careers, built lives, and have no idea what the world holds for them after this week. Populations who are still fighting for their rights are at risk in this vote. Four years of a Tory government, under zealots beholden to an ideology which suppresses those rights in favour of economic advantage for a tiny minority, is what is at stake here. By the end of those four years, the deconstruction of our public services and social security system will be complete, and we will not get it back. The EU is imperfect, but in this vote, right now, the unleashed British government is much more dangerous.
All of this is to say one simple thing: please, if you are undecided or don’t care much one way or another, please use your vote to protect the people in your society who are at risk. I respect your opinion and your choice if you have decided to vote to Leave, but this is for the people who would otherwise toss a coin, decide in the booth or just not vote. Please vote, if not for yourself then for those of us who are waiting to find out just how much worse the next few years can get. You are part of a society and, at some point, you will either be or care about someone who is disabled and who needs the support and access rights which are threatened by this vote. If there is nothing in this debate which has convinced you, please let it be this. Please don’t let our country’s apathy or indecision lead to another morning like that terrible one last May. Please.
The day after the Referendum, I woke up and posted on Facebook. The last message, from 4am, was ‘I feel sick.’ I couldn’t write a long analysis, a look at what went wrong or what we could have done differently. I couldn’t look to the future. The only thing I could say was ‘This is not the country I thought it was. I need to re-evaluate some things. I need some time.’
While many friends commiserated, a few understood what I meant. It wasn’t that I’d thought we could win on a tide of joy and hope, or that I hated the people who voted No. It was that I had spent months explaining to people outside the UK who asked what the Referendum was about that Scotland was, even without borders and history, a different country from England. We saw the world differently. That Scotland’s core, even in the right wing, was community.
A few weeks before the vote, I wrote the only piece I would write asking people to vote Yes rather than just making my case. The premise of it was that there is a kind of denialism when it comes to disability which makes people vote against their own interests. People refuse to believe it can happen to them, but the stark truth is that one in five of us will either be or become disabled. It’s the one minority group anyone can join at any moment. That means either you or someone you love will be at the mercy of the system eventually so, however much you don’t want to think about it, it is in your best interests to ensure that the system of support for disabled people is the best it possibly can be. If people really understood their risk of becoming disabled, they would be rioting in the streets at the litany of horror visited upon disabled people by the government because they would sense that horror slouching towards them and their loved ones.
In that light, and with the understanding that I had a vested interest, I begged people to vote Yes for the simple reason that England, as a whole, does not care about marginalised groups and Scotland, as a whole, does. Given independence, we could create a country which might be volatile and might struggle, but would have people at the very heart of it. We would consider the protection of our most vulnerable people a moral duty, and, indeed, that’s what the Scottish Government had been creating already.
So, when the morning of September 19th dawned, and the votes were counted and those hopes shattered, it wasn’t just a dream of a better country that I mourned. It was the lives of the people like me which would be sacrificed on the altar of austerity because the people of Scotland did not care enough about disabled people to break free from that murderous government. It was that it turned out that I was wrong about the core of Scotland, and our priorities. It was not the country I thought it was.
Obviously, it was an unfair point. Independence was a massive step, and people made their decisions for a vast array of reasons. I was in pain and in despair. Then came the General Election, and, again, a desperate plea to not vote for the Conservatives, because we may have pled ignorance the first time around, but this time we had the stacks of coroners’ reports, the death statistics, the stories of the people broken on the Tory rack. This time, to vote Tory was to be complicit in state-organised murder. Scotland made me proud, rejecting that narrative almost in its entirety, but I still had to watch as my feed filled with disabled people voicing the same fear: ‘I don’t know if I will survive this government.’
Many haven’t. Many have already died, more have had their conditions exacerbated by fear, stress, cruelty and the inability to risk treatments which may only help a little but would result in losing all their support. Still, I was proud of Scotland’s rejection of the Tories, our ongoing refusal to accept Thatcher’s edict that ‘there is no such thing as society.’
I am glad that the SNP won the election. I am thankful to everyone who voted for them or the Greens or even Labour. But to see so much of my map turn blue makes my breath catch, my muscles tense. I grew up in West Aberdeenshire, so it was no great surprise to me that, if it was going to happen in the North, that’s where it would be. I often joke about being burned as a witch by the village I grew up in when I go and visit my Mum with my car bearing SNP stickers. But there are so many blue sections.
When I woke up on Friday morning, and checked my phone for the results, the only thing I could find to say to my husband, the only thought which rose to my throat, was ‘Do we really mean that little to them?’ He tried to comfort me, tried to say that they were just looking after themselves, but that isn’t enough anymore.
I don’t care anymore if you just want to make sure your kids get an inheritance. Or if you want to make sure you can afford to send them to a good school. I don’t care if you’re worried your property might lose value or that you worry for your local economy. Those are all valid concerns, and in a reasonable world they would be valid reasons to vote in a particular way.
We do not live in a reasonable world anymore. Bodies are stacking up by the hundreds, and disabled people are being culled by a government which has full access to the coroners’ reports explaining that these deaths are the direct result of Tory policy, and which chooses not only to not fix those policies, but to expand them to kill more people. It doesn’t matter that the murders are being committed using economics and social politics rather than gas chambers or guns – the Tory government has made this active choice to systematically withdraw the necessities of life, and that is considered murder in this country.
By voting Tory – even Scottish Tory – those voters are now complicit in those murders. They have decided that their comfort and their unionism are more important than the lives of disabled people, and, whether they choose to see it or not, they are drenched in their blood. Just looking after their own interests, just following orders, isn’t an excuse for handing power to murderers.
We all know that the dividing line in Scottish politics is no longer left or right, but unionist or nationalist, but for Labour voters to choose to vote Tory as a tactic is the purest representation of their moral vacuum. Labour is still a unionist party, and they could have voted for them, but instead they chose the surer party and chose unionism over social justice, over reason, over the lives of the poor and the sick.
Seven constituencies. Thirty-one seats. Nearly a quarter of the votes.
“[£200,000] is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.”
In the midst of the most controversial Labour Conference in recent times, the speeches were pored over for things to be outraged about. The country needed to show that the Party had been taken over by ‘lefty loonies’ and, while the big names got front page headlines, other speakers became easy targets. One of these was Sioux Blair-Jordan, a Labour disability rights campaigner, who gave a powerful speech about the dehumanising narrative regarding sickness and disability emanating from the government, and the risks disabled people face if the Conservative Government follows through on their campaign pledge to dissolve the power of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK. The media and commentariat exploded with outrage and even anti-austerity campaigners expressed discomfort when she stated that, “if Cameron does his bill of rights, we might as well walk into the gas chamber today.”
Comparison to Nazi Germany is one of the most overused tropes in political discourse. Its derisory title, The Godwin Effect (a result of Godwin’s Law), means that an otherwise reasonable argument becomes invalid simply through referencing Nazism. It is seen as the last refuge of hyperbolic, desperate conspiracy theorists, and is almost always a ridiculous interpretation of whatever political situation the wild-eyed keyboard warrior is referencing. What possible defence could there be for invoking the horror of the gas chambers in a speech about our democratically elected government? Let’s take a look.
Possibly the most dangerous aspect of our fascination with World War II – the hero-worship of the Allies, the morbid fixation on what we consider to be the pinnacle of human cruelty – is that we have turned history into a caricature. We no longer see the minor decisions, the small increments which allowed otherwise normal people to turn into the avatar of evil on Earth. We believe that the Nazis came to power fully formed, their plans for genocide and world domination already drawn up and enforced through intimidation. We believe that the Germans were weak, that we would not do the same thing, because how could we? We forget that the history of the Holocaust started a long time before Auschwitz, before Kristallnacht, before the Nuremberg Rallies. If there was a beginning, it was a depressed economy and resentment at being forced to accept responsibility for World War I, and a party which gave the citizens someone to blame for it.
The Jewish community was, of course, the primary target for this. Most people are aware that there was a build-up to the Concentration Camps: the Night of Broken Glass, when the windows of Jewish-owned buildings were smashed by paramilitaries; the removal of Jewish people from political, economic or social power. We know that Germans hated them. Brits are less familiar with how much the rest of the world also hated them, because it doesn’t fit our chosen narrative. We know how Nazi Germany ended up, so any kind of affiliation with their principles is taboo; we try our best not to look at our own history of antisemitism, eugenics, Nazi sympathies, imperialism, and world domination. We focus on the fact that, for those few years, we were the good guys and they were the bad guys, and we can never, ever be compared to the monstrous, shambling horrors who perpetrated the Holocaust.
In blurring the details of history, we lost some vital understanding: the Nazi death machine did not just kill Jewish people. The term ‘Holocaust’ is often used specifically for the genocide of Jewish people in WWII, but some scholars use it to talk about the whole picture. There is no widely used term for the collective deaths at the hands of the Nazis outside of the battlefield. When we talk about the Camps, about the gas chambers, about the medical experiments, we are almost always talking about Jewish people. It’s why, in the aftermath of Blair-Jordan’s speech, the Jewish community was asked to comment, when she was in no way referring to the genocide of Jewish people. There is no reason for them to comment on this except for the fact that we have, by focusing exclusively on the horrors visited upon the Jewish people (and not without reason, for it was catastrophic and unimaginable), forgotten about the other victims of Nazi Germany.
People are peripherally aware that gay and disabled people were also persecuted, but have nowhere near the level of detailed information we have about the Jewish experience. The Holocaust now culturally just means the Jewish genocide; to our society they are the only victims, the only people who can claim the right to invoke the names of the camps where their families died in their millions, which they do whenever antisemitism rears its ugly head. They are right to be vigilant: we forget so easily how small acts of injustice pave the way for larger ones. But how could disabled people possibly think that they, too, have the right to fear the gas chambers?
The phrase ‘Action T4’ barely registers on society’s ledger of horrors. Even among its target population it is mostly meaningless. It started just before WWII, but before that came the propaganda. The quote at the top of this article, about how it’s your taxes which pay for disabled people to survive, could have been taken from any Daily Mail page in the last few years. It is, in fact, from the above poster from 1938 encouraging people not to have children if they had any hereditary diseases. Many such items of propaganda were distributed, citing the cost of supporting disabled people to the taxpayer, how many healthy people could be fed and housed for the price of just one ‘Hereditary Defective’ (the title of a particularly brutal propaganda film showing the worthlessness of the life of a sick person). But before the move towards ‘mercy killing’ was the push towards resentment, something we in the UK should recognise. Germans were told that the state could do more to help them if it wasn’t for all the ‘defectives’ they had to look after. They were told that it was their business, because it was their taxes paying for it. After the last 8 years of government (it started well before the Conservatives took office in 2010), most disabled people have either been or have known victims of members of the public demanding to know why they have a Blue Badge. When told they have no right to private medical information, the response is always the same: ‘I pay for you to live, my taxes keep you alive.’ Some go on to explicitly state that they have the right to know that any given disabled person is doing as much as they can to ‘get better’, and I’ve seen it argued multiple times that this should include access to medical records to show that they are ‘trying’. The Germans were given first the resentment, and then the salve to let them believe their hardened hearts were actually kind ones: the push for mercy killing.
It began with the children. In mid 1939 a register was begun of any child born ‘severely disabled’, which included any form of disfigurement, Downs Syndrome, ‘idiocy’, any kind of spastic condition, and other hereditary disorders. When the order to start Action T4 was given in the Autumn, the children under three were the first to be killed. Parents were told that their children had been selected for treatment in a specialist hospital, where they would have much better care. After a few weeks of ‘assessments’, they were injected with toxic doses of chemicals, usually phenol (carbolic acid), and their deaths recorded as ‘pneumonia’. After war was declared, the remit was expanded to include children and adolescents, and any parents who resisted were threatened with having their remaining children taken away or with being called up for ‘labour duty’. The hospitals created specialised killing centres, and brains and other organs were removed for research purposes.
After the war broke out, Action T4 was quickly expanded to disabled adults, including people with mental health conditions. The first mass killings of adults were of institutionalised people in Poland, and it was at a psychiatric institution in Poland where the process for mass gassing was developed. Most patients in the beginning were simply shot, but chemists experimented on the disabled population to develop the gas chamber technology. Himmler witnessed one of these early experiments and filed it away for future use. As the killing spread, and more conditions were brought under the wing of the euthanasia program, every old age care facility, mental health institution, youth home, hospital and sanatorium was forced to provide lists of patients with details of whether or not they were able bodied enough for ‘labour service’. At first, the doctors and nurses falsified records, listing people as too disabled for labour duty out of compassion, until the full plan became clear. Dedicated Euthanasia centres were created where disabled people were gassed in their thousands by SS guards dressed as doctors. The transports to the killing centres were T4 ‘Charitable Buses’, staffed by guards in white coats, taking them on a labyrinthine tour to mask their final destination. Families were told they could not visit because of the war, and eventually a plausible death certificate and a pile of random ashes was sent to them, even though most were killed with a day of reaching the centres. They would be given an initial assessment, and it was here that the ruse of the shower blocks was invented.
While the deaths of disabled people continued until just past the end of the war, the official end of T4 happened in 1941, when many of the staff and high ranking officials were transferred to the new death camps, taking with them their expertise and technology. The architects of Action T4 were given major roles in the Final Solution. None of this could have happened without the initial propaganda campaign. The Third Reich managed to successfully change the narrative from disabled people being part of the population (before access to modern medical care, disability was common and accounted for) to their being worthless drains on society, and that it would be better for everyone – the people paying the bills and the poor, suffering souls – if they were put out of their misery. They needed both resentment and dehumanisation for it to work, and they created both easily with insidious campaigns which are mirrored in every major newspaper in the UK today.
In the here and now, if you spend any time in the disability community, as I do, you will hear a shrill note of terror running through every conversation. It was anger at first, years ago, when the obstacles began to be placed in our paths and the services we, as disabled people, relied on for access to society were quietly dismantled. Then, after years of telling people that this was ruining our lives, that it was turning many of us from independent, engaged members of the community into dependent, isolated, much sicker people, the deaths started. People started to kill themselves after contact with the DWP, and we thought then that something would have to be done. Even if they couldn’t understand our admittedly complex systems of self-care and independence, the deaths would have to change things, surely. We wrote articles, we protested, we wrote letters, we begged for our lives, and we were told over and over again that it was for the best.
Beyond the unimaginable pressure from the DWP, disabled people were also increasingly targeted by hate crime, which has risen year on year since the disability provision was introduced in 2007. Even in a system in which a Criminal Justice Inspectorate review found in May that “police, prosecutors, and probation services had failed to bring about much-needed change over the past two years“, prosecutions were still up by more than 200% for disability hate crimes. Many, many more are going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Propaganda has an effect. It made the general public shrug their shoulders as more services were stripped away, more brutal techniques to ‘root out fraud’ (that the DWP’s own numbers showed was less than 1%) were introduced, and the deaths increased. People began to suffer from PTSD just from dealing with them, the dread of the Brown Envelope began to consume people, people began to seriously believe that each suicide or death from exacerbated illness was seen as a victory by the DWP as it was one less person to pay for. The Scottish Government had to drain millions of pounds from other places just to keep the worst effects of the Westminster regime from killing its citizens, but most of the country had no such protection, and the deaths continued.
Finally, Cameron admitted on national television just before the election that he was comfortable with the system as it stood, and would not be investigating the death toll. When the election result was announced in May, the reaction among disabled people was a stunned horror. We had been pleading for our lives, and people had voted for a government that was responsible for the deaths of so many disabled people because our lives were less important than their bank balances. Many posts were simple statements; most can be summed up like this: “I don’t think I will survive the next five years.”
The only recourse we have is the human rights investigation which has been ongoing for the last year or so. When it is the government themselves who are enacting this horror, a higher court is the only place to go, so we have. When Blair-Jordan said that if we removed the influence of the Court of Human Rights, disabled people may as well walk into the gas chambers now, she wasn’t being flippant. Most of us don’t think that death camps will be built to kill us all, but many of us do believe that the government will continue to pursue a path which they know makes life untenable for us. They will remove every other option available for anyone who doesn’t have outside support. And if anyone doubts that we have the right to talk about gas chambers, learn your history. We were the tests, the targets and the victims. The gas chambers were created for us, and disabled people were walking into those showers long before anyone else. The gas chambers are our horror, our history. If we do not remember this, as a culture, the bodies will keep piling up, and we know what comes next. People often ask why the Germans did not stop the war machine in its early stages, when they could still do something. You can still do something. See the propaganda for what it is, fight the people trying to twist our country into a bitter, cold, hardened place where profit and power mean more than the lives of the sick and the poor and the other. Speak the names of the dead, so we never forget that rhetoric has a cost, and that erasing history can only lead to repeating it.
Since this was written, the scale of the deaths already happening has been revealed: 30,000 excess deaths in England and Wales in 2016 alone, 120,000 excess deaths over the austerity period.
Those of us who were told we had a persecution complex fought for the UNCRPD investigation and subsequent series of judgements that the UK government has committed ‘grave and systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people’, that they have caused a ‘human catastrophe’.
And yet they were still voted in, in 2017. People decided this cost was worth it.