Oxford’s Old Imperialism And Modern Exclusions

Yesterday we had a day out in Oxford. By coincidence this seemed to be the day of college rowing races on the river. We found ourselves in the middle of all this, watching the boats getting ready to set off; the University crowds watching them, the racing itself, and then the cheering when the boats came past and then the crews brought them into the riverbank and then lifted them out of the water.

Now I am writing this at a time when the poor economic situation means that the press headlines are that Chancellor Osborne plans more spending cuts. And so far we know that what that means is even more devastating cuts in key public services and also draconian reductions in levels and access to welfare benefits that particularly affect some of the most disadvantaged groups in society, including disabled people, mental health service users, lone parents and people without jobs.

Now we all know that Oxford University is very prestigious and internationally important. Students come there from all over the world.

What was striking as we walked about in the midst of all this rowing activity was that the dominant accent was ‘posh’. What was also striking was that almost everybody involved was white. I heard more American voices among students than I saw black people. Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise. Over the last year or two the failure of Oxford University to recruit black and minority ethnic students has made major headlines. We also know that while seven percent of the UK population go to private/’public’ schools, more than half the Oxford intake were privately educated. That is exactly how it sounded as we wandered about.

Of course one major change that has taken place in Oxford rowing is that there are now lots of women’s teams as well as men’s. But as for the class origins of those women, we know from the broader evidence it is likely to be very limited and biased to the privileged. Also we can guess that as rowing is a sport that is focused particularly in public schools, the students taking part may well also be particularly overloaded with entrants from public schools.

A few points emerge from this. How long are universities like Oxford going to stay world class so long as they recruit in such a narrow and biased way excluding black and minority ethnic and state school talent? Second, why should we be privileging them as charities with tax and other reliefs so long as this is the case. This looks like another example of a reverse welfare state. My long term University, Brunel University London, recruits a host of highly talented black and minority ethnic students and has none of the privilege and advantage or even status of Oxbridge. This seems pretty misplaced.

Finally the icing on the cake of inequality and injustice for me was to see that this event was very visibly sponsored by financial corporations, whose banners and flags were very much in evidence. That is to say it was subsidized by the very kind of financial institutions that led to this country’s economic meltdown a few years ago and resulted in the so-called austerity that has been used to attack poor and disadvantaged people. Shameful!

A battle is still going on in Oxford where some progressive students and activists are demanding the removal of statues of the appalling Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Oxford’s powers-that-be are resisting this determinedly. Not really surprising since the sense I had in Oxford yesterday was nothing so much as returning to a dreary divided world of Victorian over-privilege. Rhodes sadly is still as relevant of today’s Oxford as the Oxford he gave stolen riches to more than a hundred years ago. Oxford is said to be the home of lost causes. This will certainly be one of them.


Keeping Mad Studies Safe and Democratic

I just want to alert people to a new article where we have tried to discuss this point – keeping Mad Studies safe and democratic. Some of us mental health service users/survivors see a lot of hope in Mad Studies – in the UK and internationally. Already some good things are happening and loads of progress being made. But we are also very aware that each time people as service users or disabled people come up with a good idea, some organisations and some individuals try and undermine it. So Jasna Russo and I have written this and we hope it may be helpful to lots of other people – disabled people, mental health service users/survivors and our friends, supporters and allies.

You can read what we have written, free to download from Disability & Society. Please let us know what you think. All views and comments much valued. thank you.

Here is the abstract – that is what the article is about

Mad Studies is emerging as a new force in ‘mental health’ discourse and developments. Given the way in which other would-be progressive developments associated with attempts to include experimental knowledge in this field, such as ‘recovery’ and ‘peer support’, have been subverted, this article considers whether it is possible for Mad Studies to avoid this. Drawing on developments in Disability Studies and in relation to the social model of disability, we explore what can be done in order to safeguard the distinctiveness of Mad Studies and foster its unique contribution.

Here is the link to read it for free.


Musings On A Mad World


I called this blog site  Musings On A Mad World. Why that? I could have called it many things, for example,

  • What’s Wrong With Social Policy?
  • The Appalling Effects of So-Called Welfare Reform
  • Infamy Infamy, Why Does This Government Seem To Have It Infa Disabled People?
  • Why Are They Trying To Destroy The Welfare State?
  • Why is it always the most powerless people who are coming under attack?

and so on.

But there is a simple reason why I called it Musings On A Mad World. As someone who has had long term contact with the psychiatric system, and been involved in the world of survivor activism for many years now, I have increasingly come to feel that what I see around me routinely in our day to day world is more and more mad and increasingly maddening. By which I mean it makes no sense and it seems to be driving more and more people to distress, difficulty and even madness. And I wanted to make more sense of that and develop a conversation about the maddening effects of the kind of world we now seem to live in.

Every day I feel I am faced with such madness. It seems to be everywhere. Inescapable.

On TV, I watch poor white working class people in America say that Donald Trump is their hero and saviour because he is genuine, isn’t a politician, he is a business man and that must mean he’s more competent and better. No he is a property developer who has dispossessed people from their homes and he is not so much a business person as a boss. I ask those poor people do you usually sing the praises of incredibly rich bosses, don’t you usually complain that they take all the money and pay you peanuts? Do you really trust and value YOUR boss? I doubt it.

Or I see Health Minister Hunt explain that 50,000 junior doctors have all got it wrong and the contract he wants to force on them will be better for them, for the NHS and all of us – a man who has written in black and white to say the NHS should be privatized. And yet given the UK media, it is likely that many people will believe him. But if I ask them if a medical emergency affected your child, who would you turn to a politician or a doctor, I know who they will trust more and put more trust in and he won’t have MP after his name or Minister before it.

Or I think back to May 2015 and the Tories win an election even they thought they couldn’t win, given their track record, because enough people voted for them in enough millions. The same people who hate the bankers, hate the vast salaries and bonuses they give themselves, know the government does nothing about it, yet are more prepared to hate people on benefits who had nothing to do with the economic crash inspired by politicians and bankers which have damaged millions of lives.

This isn’t a crazy world? Where instead of hating the people and countries stoking up mass death and millions dispossessed in Syria, most people dutifully seem to turn their hate and anger against those fleeing such man-made disasters, as refugees and asylum seekers, even though they know they are dying in large numbers as they try and escape, through boats sinking and being drowned.

I mustn’t despair. I mustn’t give up on all this madness. So I have to try and make sense of it. I have to try and highlight it. I have to hope the conversation develops. So that is why I write this blog and that is why I have called it Musings On A Mad World. Please help me think it through and keep the discussion going and up front.

Sex, Violence, Drugs, death and Lies (but maybe not rock and roll)

Today I am going to write about sex, violence, drugs, death and lies. Are you still with me? I though you might be – with that kind of a starter. I’m trying to learn from the Sun!!

But seriously, I’m not really going to do that. But yes I am. Because I’m going to write about social care. And if ever there was a field of human activity which brought together all these headline issues then it is social care.

Here’s a field of human activity, policy, work and services, where all these five attention grabbing and fascinating issues come centre stage. It is just that social care just doesn’t tend to be seen like that. Instead it’s at best presented as worthy but dull. Yet talk to anybody who comes the way of social care as worker or service user, and you’ll quickly learn that sex, violence, drugs, violence and lies are absolutely at the heart of it.

It is a subject that can always command our individual attention because sex, violence, drugs, death and lies so often come into it. Yet – and here is the amazing paradox – so often it seems to attract minimal political interest, priority or resources. I’ll soon have more to say about that.

But first lets deal with the matter of lies. Social care is full of lies; full of official lies. These are lies about what government departments, ministers, even the prime minister, are doing about it; how concerned they are with shortcomings in social care support for say older and disabled people and how committed they are to rectifying it. And truth to tell starting with a long history of underfunding for social care, they have made it the target for particular cuts, victimizing anyone who needs its help and their families. Actually, it is difficult to find a public policy treated by politicians and policymakers with such disdain. So there are the lies; politicians’ lies.

Now let’s turn to the sex, violence, drugs and death I have highlighting and why I’ve done that. Social care work is involved in the most intimate, private, hidden and unmentioned aspects of our lives. Its workers may see us in our most unguarded moments, within our own four walls, naked, vulnerable and at our most defenceless. They help us deal with highly personal and usually private tasks. Social care’s professionals have to address and make the most difficult decisions about very frightening and secret issues of child and adult sexual abuse.

Some encounter and have to support people dealing with death and dying on a daily basis. It’s also about helping people (and those close to them) deal with the big problems arising from dependence on prescription as well as non-prescription drugs. Social care is about control as well as support, preventing violence, sometimes facing it and sadly sometimes responsible for it. All human life is certainly here. All taboos may be broached, from talking about people’s sex lives, to uncovering and helping with many layered debt.

And yet social care and its workforce are treated as of no importance. The rights and needs they are there to support and safeguard are given minimal political priority. Judging by the terms and conditions of most of their workers, they are seen as little more than menials. They have to deal with some of the most appalling personal and social difficulties. They may be all that some people have to turn to, to deal with the biggest and most frightening situations we can encounter as human beings. This includes every kind of loss: personal, relational, physical, emotional, intellectual, financial. It really is time that they were treated better. It’s time that more priority was given to the life and death issues facing the rest of us that we rely on them to help us with.

All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy

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The Welfare State: what was that Mummy?

I have now written two blogs about worrying developments in the welfare state through so-called government welfare reform. Now I’ve a third that may be even more worrying.

In my first blog, I talked about the way policymakers made it difficult for people to access the support they need and are entitled to. The second highlighted that while government seems to want to restrict support to those they see as the most ‘incapable’, ‘vulnerable’ and let’s be frank ‘hopeless’, they make getting support a job that requires all the skills of a superhero.

Well now the point of this third blog. It’s a bigger and ultimately I think even more frightening issue. They want us to forget there was ever such an idea as we could turn somewhere for any kind of help and instead just believe we have to hack everything, every problem, every crisis, every emergency, on our own or with just the help of whatever family and friends we have. This is a terrifying prospect.

This idea first came to me when I met a group of American social workers; an enthusiastic and positive group, who had come over to the UK to learn more about what we were doing. We got on well and seemed to understand each other, but then when someone mentioned the NHS and they asked us to explain it, it became clear that we might have been talking to them in a foreign language they had never heard before.

They simply could not get their heads round the idea that they would get medical help, without having to pay for it there and then, be under an insurance programme or pay for it later in instalments. ‘What do you mean, you don’t have to pay?’ they said. ‘What you will get surgery and hospital stay and it doesn’t cost?’. When we explained that the idea was you paid in your taxes and all this was free at the point of delivery, they could neither understand nor believe it. It didn’t make any sense to them.

And I later realized that there was a similar incomprehension from the other side among Brits. We by and large seem not to be able to understand the idea of NOT HAVING an NHS. People absolutely take it for granted in one sense, if they greatly value it in another. But the idea that you have to pull our your insurance certificate before you get treated is as alien to most of ‘us’ as the alternative seemed to be to most Americans. Maybe that is why it is so easy for governments like Mr Cameron’s to privatize the NHS by stealth; to try and restrict access to ongoing support with ‘bright ideas’ like ‘personal health budgets’; to outsource more and more; to pay for it by ludicrously costly ‘private finance initiatives’ and so on. Then one day we wake up and are told that we will have to pay for more and more, pay more and more for it and the right wing think tanks will have got what they wanted.

And then I realized something very disturbing. I realized how much of the old welfare state we have already lost, without most people even realizing it. This is a measure of the shortness of political and collective memory. Obviously, there is no longer large scale council housing, which post-war transformed the quality of life and housing for millions. Now we are seeing a rundown of so-called ‘social housing’ left, which has become stigmatized, over-expensive and really only serving as a welfare state for the housing association chief executives who frequently pocket more than £100,000 a year. We have also seen social care services remorselessly closed down – after first charging was first introduced.

Universal funeral and maternity grants are now long gone and so is the severe disability allowance. Patients are now unlikely as in the past to be given time in convalescence homes to help them recover fully. Grants for moving or setting up home were first whittled down to loans under the ‘social fund’ and now are no longer available from central funding. We have seen the ending of undergraduate and postgraduate student grants which offered opportunities for higher education for all. The wonderful role of the ‘home help’ is now unknown to many. First established to help new mothers bringing up their babies, the role was then developed for older and disabled people. Home helps, cleaned and shopped, chatted and generally helped people maintain their independence. It was a ‘proper job’, with decent terms and conditions, based on an on-going relationship, instead of reducing domiciliary care as now, to a procession of strangers passing through people’s homes, on minimum wage and below and ‘zero hours’ contracts.

So people increasingly won’t even know what they have lost. And then we won’t even know we could have had it and once had a right to it. When that realisation is the norm, then people will expect less and less. Already there are threats to public parks, let alone school playing fields. Libraries are going left right and centre. Where I live schools are being closed down to make way for ‘luxury housing’ Instead of public byways, there are shopping precincts which are locked at night and ‘gated communities’. Bit by bit the infrastructure of public life, of a pleasing environment, will be taken from us and we will be brainwashed into reduced expectations. If you want this or want that, you should expect to pay for it. This is the road we seem set on.

I have greatly valued the words of one of my nephews by marriage about the welfare state and the manipulation of our attitudes about it. He has said:

I think a tax funded welfare state is part of the price of living in a civilised country, so in the same way we pay for roads we won’t drive on and street lights we won’t walk under, paying for a welfare state ensures at least a basic level of quality of life and options for people we won’t ever be familiar with, but would wish they would receive if we did know them. For the future, I think it is important that the welfare state is capable of treating the individual in the same manner we would hope someone such as a nephew or neighbour would be treated – by offering them sensible and suitable options relevant to their circumstances and supporting them in their aspirations.

Thank god for young people like Frank. We must hold on to that truth, otherwise we will end up as impoverished, fragmented and impoverished as our poor Victorian predecessors.


All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy

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