Formula One, Disability and Social Care: time to rethink wealth creation

I want to talk about Formula One, disability, older people and social care today. Not a common coupling or choice of subject, but one that I think is way overdue consideration and offers us a lot of insights about our age and its values. Perhaps rather too many insights in some senses.

So first I must declare an interest. I cannot stand Formula One. I think it brings boredom to new levels. It should only be a global sport insofar as it is recognized as being able to bore world class. What it actually and too frequently is, is a procession of weird vehicles that bear no relation to anything else going round on four wheels, over large barren bits of perfectly surfaced blacktop, till the required number of ‘laps’ has been completed. It is also mind numbingly futile because you know that who wins is almost entirely a matter of which massive multi-national motor company at the moment happens to have developed the ‘best’ technology. Also it works according to ever changing rules in regard to engine size and other technicalities which again bear no relation to individual human ability etc.

I have to admit to another interest here. I love motorcycles, particularly older motorcycles. But when I watch motorcycle racing what I see are people rather than machines, doing the most amazing things, often truly dangerous things (if that is what you are after, which I am not) where the individual’s skill does still take precedence and where in all kinds of senses fans and racers are still a lot closer to each other.

But my point is this. Disability, older age and social care are all treated politically as though they are the lowest of priorities; the lowest of the low. They are presented as wealth consuming. Too often the people associated with them we know are offered as if they were dependent, inadequate and a drain on the rest of us. Thus the desperate desire to cut welfare benefits and social care spending. Formula One on the other hand is celebrated as if at the cutting edge; breaking new boundaries of technology; a real wealth creator on a global scale. Certainly it is something which seems to command the interest of men all over the world and have close associations one can only imagine with prevailing ideas of masculinity and machismo.

It also commands the interests of some of the biggest free market players, the massive oil companies; tobacco companies – still – and of course, financial institutions. And it is here we can begin to discern some truths about it. It is linked with those global free market interests most closely associated with some of the biggest problems and costs the world faces; environmental, social and political. Watching formula one is now largely a matter of watching a TV screen constantly covered at least 50 per cent with advertising – and that is ignoring the adverts all over the cars and the drivers’ helmets – all you mostly see of these generally rather boring figures.

And as for technological advancement. The future of cars lies in electricity – as far as there has to be a mass future for cars at all, which probably sadly there will be. And what does Formula One offer here? Not a lot, nor indeed in many other technological areas given that it has gone off in such an abstruse direction to drive these strange machines round pointless corners, chicanes and straights. Each team though, each car and driver has its own group of amazingly skilled engineers and others. This really is where no expense is spared and this ‘sport’ is associated with billions of money globally.

Meanwhile social care, disability and older people – that is to say the domain of many, many millions, is starved of resources, treated like a dustbin of human activity and endlessly marginalized and stigmatized. The expertise of the workers isn’t even recognized, let along rewarded. Well into the twenty first century many people still inappropriately in institutions, still die of bed sores (which we know only too well how to avoid and contain) because of the inadequacy of their support. Many more are restricted to their homes unnecessarily by their impairments. Many more face negative stigma and stereotyping which overshadows their lives and their families.

And how does Formula One by contrast really generate wealth? Of course it doesn’t. The interests associated with it are undermining the wealth of the planet and its sustainability. Every race we watch must create the equivalent of the pollution of billions of the plastic carrier bags we have been told not to use and to pay for instead.

Mindsets have got to change. Formula One is not an island – it is a demonstration project of the destructive effects of unrestricted ‘petrolism’ and the free market and the globalized big business associated with it. And disability, older age and social care should instead stop being talked down, us alienated from them and instead given the value that all of us have a right to expect of our lives and selves. That should be the mark of an advanced twenty first century not figures like Jeremy Clarkson, Chris Evans and other sad, date expired petrol heads.

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A Tale of two welfare books and its worrying message

It is not often you get a chance to make a direct comparison between how the media and political institutions deal with what service users have to say and how they respond to yet more right wing ideologically based arguments. It’s even rarer to be involved in such a situation. But that is what I’ve lately been seeing first hand. My book All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy was published this year (http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781447328940&ds=New+Titles&dtspan=150:150&sort=sort_date/d&m=12&dc=131 ). It’s the first attempt to critique the welfare state from a service user perspective, examining it warts and all and then building on user knowledge and evidence to explore the possibilities for a sustainable participatory social policy for the future. The second book in question is Adam Perkins’ The Welfare Trait: How state benefits affect personality (http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137555274 ). You can imagine the kinds of effects the author is talking about and looking back to Mrs Thatcher and Charles Murray, you can guess the prescriptions he has to offer.

Not very interesting so far you might say. If I say it myself, the first book, mine, represents the first such service user critique of the welfare state: past, present and future. It makes very clear the shortcomings of the original post war welfare state, but equally makes very visible the appalling state of affairs under the pre-war poor law in the days when market was king. Mr Perkins’ book has nothing new to say if we are honest. It’s also not as though the all-conquering neo-liberalism of the present government and its Coalition predecessor are in any sense beleaguered and needing a cavalry like Mr Perkins’ to come to its aid. Let’s be honest recent governments have been undermining the welfare state with a determination that is alarming – unless we assume that governments are naturally at war with their least powerful, most vulnerable members – people like mental health service users, those with long term conditions, disabled people, disabled students, people with learning difficulties, their families and so on (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22745).

Nonetheless, Mr Perkins’ book has been seen as having news value. It is becoming a darling of both right wing think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute and the prevailing right wing press (http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/miscellaneous/a-review-of-adam-perkinss-the-welfare-trait/). But it goes further than that. If All Our Welfare managed to gain 600 words in the left-of-centre Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/16/future-welfare-state-shaped-by-service-users ), then Perkin’s opus has gained a full page with a pleasing photograph of the youthful ideologue (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/09/adam-perkins-welfare-dependency-can-be-bred-out ). It is said that the book’s rise to prominence is on the basis of him being ‘no platformed’ at the London School of Economics. Sadly the LSE hasn’t offered me a platform of any kind which anybody has then needed to ‘no platform’.

Of course the rhetoric of advocates of individualism, extreme bioethics and the free market like Mr Perkins is that they are the spokespersons for freedom, the rights of the individual, consumer control and free choice. They present as marginalized, reviled and muzzled by a prevailing left of centre state apparatus and its media.

The truth, as this little story highlights, is that any attempt to enable ordinary people as welfare service users to talk about the reality of their experience, whether as disabled people, people with life limiting conditions or as children needing help, is likely to be marginalized, devalued and even ignored. Yet we know and all political parties, including the present party of government, subscribe to the rhetoric, that people as patients, service users and members of the public, should be fully involved in the development of democratic policy and services. That’s why I wrote my book, building on all the evidence that such people have developed as their own organisations, research and movements have emerged.

And that is why Mr Perkins’ dismal, poorly evidenced monograph will at best be another publishing blip and at worst just be used cynically by policymakers to oppress more disabled people and others. And that’s why we have to keep battling on to ensure that we have health and welfare policies that are democratically based, environmentally sustainable, properly resourced and shaped by the voices, rights and needs of people facing difficulties in our society, which Mr Perkins only undermines further.