A South London GP friend told me a disturbing story last week. I paraphrase, but this is roughly it. A woman in her fifties called up the surgery. Her elderly and confused father had soiled himself and she wanted to know if the surgery could send someone round to clean him up. “Did you have children?” my friend asked her. She did. He went on: “When they were babies did you ever contact the state to see if it would come round to change their nappies?” She went quiet. Ouch, what a question.
Last week the Evening Standard – now, of course, a propaganda rag for George Osborne’s Remain-inspired end-of-the-world fearmongering – led with the following front-page headline: “Who’ll look after our elderly post Brexit, ask care chiefs”.
I’m still spitting blood at the arrogance and callousness of that question. It summed up all that I have against the Osborne neoliberal (yes, that’s what it is) world-view. And why I am longing for a full-on Brexit – No Deal, please – to come along and smash the living daylights out of the assumptions behind that question.
First, let me answer the question. Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.
Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t. The Evening Standard’s headline was the complaint of those who realise that their ‘help’, the Polish or Spanish care worker, might not be available to look after Mum and Dad. OMG, they might just have to do it themselves!
Writing in the Independent last year, Luciana Berger – MP for Liverpool Wavertree and recent Labour defector, and also a member of the Health and Social Care Committee – spoke out against the effect of Brexit on the social care sector. “A massive increase in demand for elderly care is predicted in the coming years. More than 1.2 million older people will need some form of care by 2040, according to the Department of Health and Social Care. That’s double the number of people compared to 2015,” she wrote.
And Brexit will be disastrous, she went on. “The Department of Health itself estimates that there could be 28,000 fewer workers in the social care sector in England five years after leaving the EU… The result of this would be thousands of hours’ worth of lost earnings.”
Interestingly never once in the piece did she mention the word family. Indeed, the only way the piece related to family life and the mutual care that this has traditionally implied is through the idea that caring for a family member equals “lost earnings”.
My GP friend also told me another story. Just before Christmas he did a home visit to an elderly woman, living on her own, but surrounded by Christmas cards. She proudly told him how well her kids had done, showing him the cards sent by her children living all round the world. “I never see them very much now” she explained. She was on her own for Christmas. They might Skype.
This is what happens when that much over praised value of social mobility becomes the way we think about dealing with social inequality. Social mobility is very much a young person’s value, of course. Get on. Get out of your community. Find a job anywhere you please. Undo the ties that bind you. The world is your oyster.
This is the philosophy that preaches freedom of movement, the Remainers’ golden cow. And it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin, loyal to nothing but the capitalist dream of individual acquisition and self-advancement.
Always on the move, always hot desking. Short-term contracts. Laptops and mobiles – even the tools of modern workplace remind us that work no longer has any need of place. All this is a philosophy that could not have been better designed to spread misery and unhappiness. Human beings need roots for their emotional and psychological flourishing. They need long-term, face-to-face relationships; they need chatting in the local post office; they need a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment. No amount of economic growth is worth sacrificing all this for.
Because robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness. And care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas.
My GP friend is Muslim, and a fairly conservative one I think it’s fair to say. We were eating in a Pakistani restaurant in Tooting. All around us extended Muslim families were sitting together, children and the elderly, aunts and uncles. It was a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking. “They must integrate!” comes the familiar line, which, in effect, means they should disperse, learn the values of progressive individualism.
From where I was sitting it is these people – and not George Osborne swanning off to his new £3 million chalet in Verbier – that have got it right. For the attraction of socially conservative and traditional values are that they constitute a highly successful form of mutual care. Indeed, these are the values that have formed the basis for the most effective form of social security the world has even known: family and community life.
The idea that this form of life constitutes “lost earnings” shows how far the Remainer free-market, free-movement philosophy is a threat to the web of support on which the poorer and the most vulnerable especially, have to rely. Remain is all about ever new opportunities for the rich. Brexit seeks a reclamation of something we have lost. The ability to stay put and care for each other.