Like I imagine a good many people (and, I hope, many good people), I warmed immediately to our new Prime Minister. The moment she stepped into Downing Street, it felt like a return to some kind of normality. I am a quiet person so I’m naturally drawn to quiet people who shun the limelight. May felt reassuringly humble, scornful of celebrity, though I knew she also had a shrewd political nature. Yet I also welcomed her speech on the steps of Downing Street. It lacked all of David Cameron’s creepish bonhomie that disguised George Osborne’s dreadful political logic. I am pragmatic enough to welcome things that mean real political change, rather than holding ideological positions that will never amount to anything. I thought maybe this could be a return of the One Nation Tories, cast into a purgatory in the years of Thatcherite ascendancy. Yet in recent weeks, I’ve found myself losing faith in Theresa May, though I should add that it is not really the fault of our new Prime Minister. It’s really a fault of the system which I don’t see her putting right any time soon.
My faith disappeared when an interesting point emerged from the trial of Anjem Choudary, who was this week sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison for supporting terrorism. Apparently, Choudary claimed £500,000 from the state over 20 years and, apparently, nothing could be done. As The Daily Telegraph reported it:
Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, said the issue of terrorism suspects claiming benefits was a “nightmare”, but there was no way to change the law to prevent them getting state hand outs.
He said a detailed study conducted while he was secretary of state found no action could be taken against people who had not been found guilty, and even then it was not possible to deny benefits to their families who depended on state funds.
The emphasis is mine because I found the former minister’s point of view fascinating given that action has recently been taken against me, despite my not being found guilty of any crime in any court of law. I’m not a terrorist. I’ve not claimed £500,000 pounds in 20 years or even a lifetime. Yet, here I am: forced into dire straights and trying to prove my innocence of the most ridiculous ‘crime’.
I think I should explain…
My last few weeks have not been easy. Just over a month ago I was writing one or two articles a week as well as being 50,000 words deep into a book I’d wanted to write for two or three years. My head was filled with ideas, my table littered with research on literature, politics, philosophy, and science. Work was going well. I was enjoying a period of protracted writing having just finished working on a book of cartoons, which friends and family had liked with surprising enthusiasm. Publishers were even taking an interest in the cartoons and there was a chance — perhaps one of those sweet blessed life-changing chances — that it could be published. Yet that wasn’t the end of this upbeat spasm of my life. More personally, I was delighted for my sister who, after 20 years of being sick with an undiagnosed condition, had finally found a team of consultants who thought they knew what was up with her. Five weeks ago I was about to embark on two and half weeks of hospital visits. It was going to be hard but rewarding. I was also going to use my trips into Liverpool to do more research on the book. I had it all planned out…
And then on the Friday before the Monday I was due to start my gruelling schedule, I received a letter from HMRC informing me that I owed them thousands of pounds. In a panicked state, I rang them up.
‘Oh,’ they said, ‘it’s because you didn’t tell us you live with your wife’.
‘I don’t have a wife,’ I replied.
In brief, a private American company called Concentrix, contracted by HMRC to spot fraud, had noticed that I live in the same house as somebody with my surname. Such an ‘odd’ situation led these deductive geniuses to surmise that it must be my wife. It is, in fact, my sister. They’d pulled the same trick on her 12 months ago when they wrote to say she was suspected of fraud for not declaring that she has a husband. She doesn’t have a husband. She just has me, which she then had to prove over the course of a few bad weeks. The stress made her extremely unwell.
So now they’re trying the same with me. Concentrix have the power that, apparently, Iain Duncan Smith never had over suspected Islamic terrorists. They have found me guilty (without trial), stopped my Tax Credits, and now expect me to prove my innocence. So, in addition to the physical and emotional toil of helping my sister, I’ve had the bureaucratic toil of trying to clear my name as well as the significant financial strain. I had to borrow money, walk places instead of taking a bus, and I had to limit what I ate, avoiding coffee shops for bottles of water in my bag. Birth certificates were sent off and then returned with a promise that ‘we’ll write to you soon’ but nothing has come. Concentrix are not a company that like to answer their phones. Their systems keep crashing. Since I published my article over at CapX, I’ve received dozens of messages from people in the same situation, struggling to prove their innocence when dealing with a company it’s almost impossible to deal with. It is clearly a countrywide problem as well as a national disgrace.
So, this week, during a break between hospital visits, I finally found time to contact my MP, in whose hands I’ve now left it.
Which brings me to the politics and a realisation that has been slowly dawning on me. This is what I’ve always suspected that Despair feels like. There is no big solid emotion that I can describe. Once my anger abates and my frustrations begin to shrink to mere impotence, I realise that Despair is really a feeling of complete absence. It’s a lack of faith in the System; a belief that no matter how impassioned a person can feel, how aggrieved by the injustice of a irrational system, there is nothing they can actually do to change it. Why? Because the system is not designed to be operated by human beings. I have been accused of marrying my sister and, though it should be an easy thing to prove, the reality is that the decision has not yet been overturned. The world is simply too big and the people in power so involved in their games that they really don’t care what you or I say, do, feel, or suffer. They could accuse me of having two heads and five arms and there seems to be nothing I could do to prove otherwise. That is truly frightening when experienced at first hand.
The reason, I guess, is that there are three worlds of politics. The first world is the world that you and I know. It is the world of taxation and infrastructure, traffic flow between cities, and the price of a pie or a pint. The second world is that world of Westminster cabals; the stab-the-friend-in-their-back intrigues which see people rise to the top of the party and then hold on for the sake of their now grim lives. The third world of politics is that of the ideas. It is the ideological world of fierce party thinkers who wish to change the direction of the party and therefore the world.
Most politicians exhibit some mixture of the three interests: the local, the political and the ideological. In recent months — and perhaps even recent years — the politics of the Left have become dominated by that second world: the deeply political game playing. On the Right, it’s been a fixation on the ideological. Brexit has been largely a fight between the two wings of the Tory Party.
Most obviously, with these two preoccupations filling the front pages, politics has stopped being about the first world: the daily lives of the people. The fight for the soul of the Labour movement has very little to do with how you or I live our lives. It is about abstractions of soft and hard Left and the spin and propaganda. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have their own fight which rages in clubs, bars, and the back rooms of Westminster. Meanwhile Twitter wars rage between people who care only about this bipolar struggle into which reason cannot intrude.
Even as I contacted my MP this week, I wondered if there really was any point. Other MPs have been raising the Concentrix issue in the House of Commons for the past year and, if we’re to judge from this exchange between the Speaker and Louise Haigh MP, the government care so little (or, more likely, feel so untouchable) that they have yet to provide substantive answers to the questions. It now comes down to media to bring these stories to light but the only print media that really care to do so have been Private Eye (right) and The Independent. The rest, it seems, are largely indifferent.
That indifference has been making me reassess so much in the past month. Are certain stories too toxic to handle or is this tale of privatised bureaucracy simply too boring for journalists to whom this must seem piffling business? Since I wrote my article, I’ve been contacted by so many people in dire straights that I go to bed at night feeling physically sick, not least because I cannot do a thing to help them. I open my inbox in the morning to find another email from a mother who has had to take out a payday loan to help feed her children because she’s been accused of being married to the previous tenant at her address. Or then there’s another person, this time a sister accused of marrying her brother, and now unable to clear her name. My Twitter feed is swamped with complaints about Concentrix and I cannot do anything beyond write the odd article to explain it to others.
From where I sit, democracy no longer looks like it’s working. Labour are in meltdown and, looking beyond the point of it all (and there doesn’t seem to be much of a point at all), it’s obvious they are in no position to ask serious questions that the government feel duty bound to answer. Which leaves parliament powerless. What is the point of democracy if an MP can’t get answers about a situation that is affecting so many people being victimised and bullied by a foreign company treating us like something they can harvest? What is the point of the System? What is the point of waving flags and feeling all those tingling sensations associated with patriotism? Because, simply, the nation is so large, companies so powerful, and government so certain of their actions, that the voices of individuals mean nothing to them.
So many companies beg us to ‘tell us what you think of our service’ but you soon learn, if you do take them up on their offer, that they really don’t care enough to listen. If you don’t like what your local bus company is doing, then what does that matter to the bus company who have so many millions of other passengers? What do the voices of one, ten, a hundred, or even a thousand people matter in a nation of 60+ million?
I don’t know what the answer is beyond saying that for the first time in my life, I feel powerless. I’ve lost faith in the system. My faith in the power of our new Prime Minister to change things has disappeared in the reality of my daily life. If I can’t get a company to accept the simply ridiculous situation that I’m not married to my sister, then clearly the System no longer operates on human logic. It works on something else and that something is sinister, toxic, and simply won’t end by destroying me and the people who write to me each day. It will destroy all of us because this is a system that knows no human touch. It is about big data, computer algorithms, and a process deliberately designed to make weak flesh fail. Iain Duncan Smith was wrong to say the government can’t take action against people who have not been found guilty. They have done it with me. They are doing it with thousands of people every single day. It’s just that they contract out the dirty work so they don’t have to do it themselves. If that does not frighten you, then I don’t know what could.
I’m writing this from your future and I can assure you that it’s not a place you want to be.