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By Stephen Derwent Partington

Saturday, July 09, 2011.

Where two stinking streams meet, the resulting swirl makes the new river even more unpleasant.

The recent and righteous furore in Britain following the revelations that the News of the World tapped the phones of a murdered teenager and relatives of dead members of the armed forces cannot be separated from the Conservative-led coalition’s moves to reduce public sector pensions and raise the retirement age.  An obvious link between the Tories and Rupert Murdoch’s News International might seem to be David Cameron’s woeful appointment of Andy Coulson – formerly of News of the World – as his communications chief, but I don’t merely mean to focus on individual personalities.

Let’s begin with the recent ‘shot across the bows’ strikes held by Britain’s public sector workers, most noticeably the teaching unions.  Following these strikes and the accompanying demonstrations against the government’s massive reductions in public sector spending, the right wing predictably argued that public sector workers were ‘being greedy’ because their private sector colleagues were getting lower-value pensions and fewer benefits.  Think of the private sector worker, was the implication, and not yourselves, and accept the little you’re being offered.

Of course, such a Divide-and-Rule ploy to break the solidarity of the poorly employed has always been a Conservative habit.  The massive privatisation of industry under Margaret Thatcher, continued under John Major, was, amongst other things, a move to break the power of the larger Unions, which resulted in the reduction of rights for those employed in the private sector, who often had to accept work in these newly-private industries or face unemployment.  In fact, the British right’s recent plea to the public sector worker to consider the impoverishment of the private sector worker and so themselves endure poverty is precisely a confession by this current Conservative regime that their previously enacted policy of privatisation has caused real poverty and suffering, exacerbating the notoriously wide rich-poor gap in Britain.

News International’s response to the hacking scandal has been similarly disingenuous.  While few of us will lament the passing of the News of the World, it’s difficult to fully accept the weak liberal argument that ‘At least Murdoch has tried to do the right thing by closing it down’.  By closing it down, Murdoch wishes us to believe that the rot has been contained, the bad apple supposedly having been removed from his Empire.  Just as the Conservatives hived off sections of the working public into often exploitative private sector employment in the 1980s and after, hoping to contain the threat of worker solidarity, so too Murdoch wishes us to believe that the demise of the News of the World has prevented the need for the public to worry about the rest of News International’s tactics or, for that matter, those of other tabloid media.  He has effectively created Divide-and-Rule within his own Empire, so as to divert us, the public, from scrutinising any further.

In both cases, we should be vigilant.  Just as the public sector worker should not forget her exploited private sector colleague, remembering that his suffering is very similar to her own, so too we should not forget that the News of the World is part and parcel of a wider Empire – indeed, a wider tabloid industry – that is implicated by this one paper’s vile lack of social ethics.  The right’s tendency to isolate, to blame the individual (person or paper) and then think that all has been solved is one that contrasts very clearly with the honest leftist belief that if there is rot anywhere, it may well be systemic, requiring more profound change than mere rebranding of the sort we’re bound to see when, we suspect, News International presents us with a new Sunday tabloid some months down the line.

Much as this should lead us to believe that any investigations and inquiries into the phone hacking scandal should go beyond a narrow focus on the News of the World and rather extend to the wider activities of News International and other of Britain’s tabloids, so too we should as a population reflect upon whether the public sector’s concerns are really only a selfish cry for ‘more money for me’, or whether the recent strikes are something we should support because they touch on matters concerning all of us.  I don’t think we should isolate the public sector workers as a discrete, problematic rump.  Instead, I believe very strongly, as someone who doesn’t work in the public sector, that they may well be articulating and protesting issues that affect me, too.  And I am grateful to them.

For instance, although the recent strike action and any threatened future strike action may appear to be exclusively against Con-Dem pension policies in the public sector, I read it instead as a fight for the Welfare State, which is something I cherish.  You see, I presently work in a postcolonial country, Kenya, where, despite many glorious strengths, the following is often true:  quality medical care is beyond most people’s reach; education for the poor is in constant crisis; pensions are inadequate, and even stolen; other basic needs are unaffordable.  Certainly, this points to the value of Britain’s National Health Service, to the importance of State schools, to the need for continuously decent State pensions, to the need for various State benefits, made possible through taxation, for all, especially for those who would otherwise suffer more greatly.

Recently in the UK, we have popularly come to see the Welfare State as being merely the excellent NHS, but indeed it’s so much more, for the benefit of all of us.  And all of its many provisions, from health to education, for all of us, are endangered when one of the most necessary parts of the system, State pensions, are reduced in value and the bar for these reduced pensions raised!  The Con-Dem assault on pensions is in fact potentially only the tip of the iceberg, the start of this government’s shrinking  of the Welfare State, which they as Conservatives began under Thatcher and that, we should suspect, they may well continue, using the ‘Global Economic Crisis’ as a convenient excuse to pursue policies that they have always held while at the own time masking their own complicity in the crisis.

We should not read the scandal involving the News of the World as isolated.  It is not isolated because it probably spreads, systemically, to and from the wider rot in sections of our media.  It is also not isolated because, as we have seen, it doesn’t merely involve ‘them’, those distant celebrities and politicians, as News International and others once claimed, nor was it perpetrated by only one or two ‘bad eggs’; rather, it involves us all as very human members of the general public in all our political hues, employments and moments of suffering and bravery, whether we’re innocent victims of crime or soldiers who fight for our country.  So too, the attack on public sector pensions spreads further, to potentially affect us all as British citizens, as a society, and this negatively.  It spreads back to wider Con-Dem policies of the recent past, and can not merely be blamed on any immediate ‘Global Crisis’.  Inevitably, there is also great hypocrisy: just as the News of the World fakes patriotism for ‘our boys in Afghanistan and Iraq’, the present government claims that it’s cutting spending for our good.

Both situations smell badly of a right-wing lack of concern not only for specific groups, but for the wider British public.  Just as I would feel betrayed if the disappearance of the News of the World ended an important debate and investigations, so too I would feel betrayed if we failed to raise our collective British voice against the Con-Dem attack on the whole British population – the welfare of both the poor and the middle-class.

Where two stinking streams meet, as they so recently have, the swirling of the newly powerful river can be seen and smelt.  And the current becomes strong: strong enough to drown a great population, and this without any sense of political morality at all.  Rivers simply roll on, caring for nothing their paths.

Stephen Derwent Partington is a teacher, poet and writer, based in Kenya. How to Euthanise a Cactus, Stephen's keenly-awaited new book of Kenyan poems, is now easily available and you can buy it online .

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