The Demons

Posted: 04 February 2013, in Blog

The Demons

If you want to watch some old nonsense by Ken Russell then his movie about sex crazed nuns (ostensibly possessed by demons) called The Devils is a diverting use of a couple of hours. It is stuffed full of religious imagery, witchcraft and nudity and explores corruption, morality, power and politics in 17th century France. d’Artagnan et al are not in it. Oliver Reed is brilliant in it as the libidinous political priest who can’t keep his vestments on.

Of course it got banned in umpteen places and a heavily edited version is out there somewhere but the maverick Russell who also directed the excellent movies; Women in Love, The Boyfriend and Tommy seemed to enjoy being a stirrer.

I was thinking of demons this week in relation to Demos and Alec Shelbrook MP. Demos are being coy (in a metropolitan, inclusive, non-judgemental way) but still making the suggestion that the underclass need to be nudged into making better lifestyle choices. They obviously don’t want to be too pejorative about this although prepaid benefit cards would apparently be good for some people (sic) however. Prepaid cards would seemingly be useful in blocking temptation. Shelbrook is on sturdier and more neo-liberal “moral” territory.

As a Tory MP he is adamant that benefit claimants should be prevented from spending money on NEDDs. These are Non-Essential, Desirable and often Damaging – products such as alcohol, cigarettes, paid-for TV channels and gambling.

“It’s trying to help the poorest in society be able to manage their money better, We need to make sure we can put faith back in the system, support people at their time of greatest need, and make sure that the public – and everybody knows – that this is a national insurance system and not a government charity,” Alec Shelbrook MP, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme 30th January 2013

About the same time as this stuff, out comes better news. Recovery College, set up in Southwark by St Mungo’s charity is for homeless people and it provides courses in practical skills and confidence building. It is going fantastically well and is attracting hundreds of applications. Charges and entry requirements don’t exist and students help to design and deliver the courses. Subjects include literacy, raising self-esteem, overdose awareness, first aid and how to manage when you have very little money.

Once a student has got some momentum going towards improving their life they have the opportunity to link into formal education. The college has links with Ruskin College in Oxford and the City Lit in London. I liked the quotes that were in the press from the students and the organisers:

“Being students is a sign of equality, and working in groups addresses loneliness.””

“Having a laugh in class is even more important among people who have vulnerable, dangerous, stress-filled lives.”

“The vast majority didn’t have a good time at school – so this is showing it can be enjoyable,”

”Getting them out of the cold is a start. We want to be more ambitious for them,”

I wish the Demos folk and Shelbrook could spend a day at this college. The thing about demonising people is that we are actually saying that they are culpable and to blame for their circumstances.

Now I’m as tempted to go on an uninformed rant as much as the next man, but anyone with half a brain has to look beyond the symptoms of, and think about the causes of poverty. That does not preclude pointing out that anti-social behaviour and poor lifestyle choices are just plain wrong or that taxpayers should not get fleeced in order to pay for the fags, bevvy and SKY TV of those members of the underclass daft enough to talk to reporters and journalists.

What it does mean however is that universal one size fits all solutions when dealing with complex (anti)social problems just don’t work – go on, name one that has. Instead we need to look at the Recovery College model and think of solutions as being part of a journey.

The simple truth is that if you forbid benefit spending on proscribed goods, then criminals will enter that gap in the market and offer solutions. For example, I can imagine a scenario where your £100 prepaid card will be valued at £50 by your local gangster who will ensure you handover ID so that your card can be cashed in – say at TESCO. You get the cash to spend as you see fit. Now do TESCO check-out staff really want to start being used as some sort of auditor or regulator of this system?

In addition, if I was the proprietor of a corner shop in a housing scheme I’d be extremely fearful of the reaction that this system would create from the underclass who would be further dispossessed and demonised. Who do the authorities really think folk would take their anger out on?

The reality is that poverty is complex, the state is part of the problem as well as the solution and that innovative solutions will only come from social entrepreneurs. This is because the private sector does not exist to eradicate poverty and public sector folk manage poverty, they don’t eradicate it.

I wonder what the St Mungo’s folk would suggest as the ways to address poverty and anti-social behaviour and how to nudge folk into better choices so that they, their kids and their communities have a better life. They might also have a few opinions about the behaviours and NEDD consuming lifestyle choices of middle class researchers, metropolitan elites and expense abusing politicians. I also wonder what they would say to Shelbrook if they had the chance to take him to a food bank.

As St Mungo himself said, “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word”. If you are not a Glaswegian or religious, it still doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to substitute your own preferred sentiments into this notion of flourishing. Funny enough, I’ve never heard a politician or a researcher use that word when talking about anyone from the underclass.


NOTE: This opinion piece blog does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Social Enterprise Scotland.