Saturday, 27 April 2013

If you think women should be equal, you should be a feminist.

This statement is frequently made and often accepted at face value.

I have a bit of a problem with it.

For one thing, I don't like being told what I should be. But putting aside that semi-childish impulse, there are further reasons to take issue with this statement.

Firstly, it assumes that feminism 'owns' the female equality discourse. That the only way to describe a belief in female equality is 'feminism'. I don't believe that is so. I think you can believe in gender equality without being a feminist.

For me, in labeling yourself a feminist, you're saying that gender equality is the most important struggle. Gender is the biggest barrier. Your gender is your most primary identity.

Now, lots of feminists will tell you that their belief in gender equality sits with their belief in equality by race, class, religion, or whatever other distinction you want to apply to human beings. They believe in equality, in all its forms.

I'm sure that is true for many feminists, but then why call yourself a feminist? Why not an 'equalist', or some other label? The impression you are giving is that gender is primary over all those other issues. I don't believe it is.

The identity part of this is important too. In identifying yourself as a feminist, you're saying something about your own identity. That on a personal level, in your personal interactions on a day-to-day basis, your gender is primary. For some feminists, maybe it is. Maybe they feel that on a day-to-day basis, their gender affects what they do, how people respond to them, and what opportunities they have. I don't.

The next big problem I have with feminism is something many people seem to see as a good thing. Its breadth.

You can believe in equality for all and be a feminist.
You can also be a racist and/or homophobic, and a feminist. 
You can believe any woman who has sex with a man is selling out, and be a feminist.
You can be a socialist and a feminist.
You can be conservative and a feminist.
You can believe women should have strong maternity rights, equal pay and equal position in the workplace, and be a feminist.
You can believe women really ought to stay at home with the kids, and be a feminist. 
You can be a lover of fashion and Cosmopolitan magazine, and be a feminist.
You can believe that bras are part of gendered control, and be a feminist.

It seems to me that you can be pretty much anything and be a feminist. Labeling yourself a feminist says nothing about your beliefs. It does not tell me your definition of what a woman is or what a woman should/shouldn't do. It does not tell me your view of equality (as good as men? better than men? free to do what you choose?). Nor does it tell me your view on gendered power structures.

To me, it is pretty useless.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Health inequality and personal responsibility

A discussion on Radio 4's Today program earlier in the week really caught my attention. I've been thinking about it on and off ever since.

The discussion surrounded public health inequalities. It was being considered in the context of the recent devolution of responsibility for public health to local authorities. A specific issue mentioned was heart disease, and the factors leading to heart disease. The contention is that heart disease is, broadly speaking, a lifestyle illness. That is to say that lifestyle factors such as poor diet, not taking enough exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol all make heart disease - a long with a host of other diseases - more common.

All of these things - poor diet, not taking enough exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol - correlate with having a lower income.

So why do poorer people take less care of themselves?

Do they simply not have enough money to make healthy choices?
Are healthy choices inaccessible for other reasons (eg no shops selling healthy foods)?
Are they not educated enough to know what is healthy?

I don't find these arguments convincing. Money can be an issue, but budgeting makes healthy eating much cheaper than takeaways. What's more, if money was the key issue surely smoking and drinking alcohol (non-essentials!) would disappear? This is an issue of prioritising spending.

I accept there may be a few small communities where the only food sold is from the local chippy (or similar), but I don't think there can be many of them. As we keep hearing, Tesco (or her competitors) is everywhere. And Tesco sells healthy options.

While there may be some confusion about the finer details of a healthy diet, I think we've all got the key messages: smoking, alcohol, high fat/sugar/processed foods = bad. Everyone knows what we mean by '5 a day'. Everyone knows regular exercise is good for you.

The reasons above call for intervention. The state should intervene to ensure people have a minimum income (which will magically make people more responsible with their choices).

Now, to Conservatives like me - liberal Tories - this just does not sit right at all. Especially when accompanied by quotes like this:

"And if people’s jobs are less stable, they may be forced to change their diet, or drink and smoke more." [emphasis added] - Dr Perviz Asaria, quoted here on heart disease.

Which to me, is just plain ridiculous.

These paternalistic attitudes are dis-empowering and strip people of personal responsibility. This is not helping people. The reason poorer people eat poorer diets, exercise less, smoke more and drink more alcohol is because they choose to do so. People are, or should be, responsible for their own choices. Taking out personal responsibility in this way is making healthy choices even less likely to be made.

On its own, this may seem overly simplistic. I accept that various factors (income, education, culture) may make it harder to make healthy choices. What I do not accept is that any of these things make healthy choices impossible, or unhealthy choices inevitable or forced.

If we are to tackle public health issues like this we must move responsibility downwards to the individual. Devolution of public health to local authorities is a welcome step. Not least because it means the variety of approaches will allow us to evaluate more and less successful methods.

I think it is time to consider the ways in which the NHS, as free and without judgement, is possibly contributing to these lifestyle illnesses. Does the sense of security created by the NHS make people less concerned about taking care of their own health, and preventing illness? Does medication to treat the early ill-effects of lifestyle disease lead to complacency from the individual? How can we introduce enough personal responsibility in to healthcare provision to mitigate these effects, without leaving people to suffer?

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Thatcher's grandchildren

There's this stereotype of Tories. They're all a bit posh. From the south of England. They have rich, or at least middle class, mummies and daddies. They like shooting things (animals). And destroying the lives of things (people: mostly poor and disabled, but anyone vulnerable). They are Privileged.

I'd like to say I'm the exception. The minority within the Tory party that is Normal. But I'm not.

I mean, I am Normal, but I'm not a minority. It is very noticeable within Conservative Future that though there are some posh boys and girls, there are also an awful lot of regular people. People who aren't born to it, but nevertheless are very much persuaded by Conservative ideology.

I'm from the north of England. An ex-mining town actually. The kind of place where Thatcher is a synonym for 'everything that is, and ever will be, wrong with the world'. I'm not rich. I'm from a single parent family, and while my mum does well now, there was very little money I was young. I definitely don't like shooting things. Tory confession: I'm a vegetarian. Please don't out me when I next attend a Countryside Alliance event. Even more shocking, I have my own disability (Crohn's disease).

I won't claim to be a 'Working Class Tory'. I'm one of those not really working class (education excludes me), but not quite middle class (no money) people (the BBC reckons I'm an 'emergent service worker'). But I do belong to a generation of young Conservatives who are, in a sense, Thatcher's grandchildren.

Thatcher's grandchildren love the free market. We simply adore the concept of a small state. Cut spending, cut taxes: Osborne should stick to Plan A. If he'd done Plan A properly we'd be doing much better. In the things we do think the state should provide (healthcare, education), we favour bringing in the market and the power of competition. Michael Gove; my hero.

Deeply skeptical about unions (they represent a niche interest, not the public good), many of us think Boris has the right idea. Actually, Thatcher's grandchildren love pretty much everything Boris says/does.

Like most Tories, we tend not to like Europe either (except for holidays and Camembert). The EU represents another layer of government, and Thatchers grandchildren share her horror of THAT.

However, Thatcher's grandchildren do part company from the great Lady somewhat. Perhaps it was inherent to her, or perhaps it was just the time she was in. But social conservatism? No. This next generation of Conservatives don't go in for that. We are liberal conservatives. All those things that get the oldies into a bit of a tizz (equal marriage?) are perfectly acceptable to us. Non-issues. 'Why-didn't-we-do-it-years-ago' issues. I believe in a small state, and that includes the state keeping out of people's private lives.

We are strong patriots and supporters of the armed forces, but since we missed the Cold War ordeal, we're a bit more relaxed about all of that.

I was born in 1989. I cannot claim to remember a female Prime Minister. So for us, for me, what is Thatcher's legacy?

In real terms: privatised industry, The City, weakened unions. Britain on the world stage, not a broken post-colonial failure. I'm sure you've read lots of these articles on economy, international relations, etc etc in this last week. These are important, of course they are. But let's be honest: it is all I've ever known. For me, that stuff is all really cool, but it didn't bring me in to politics.

The ideas are so much more powerful. The ideas are inspiring.

The idea that you can work hard and get on. That if you are determined, you can overcome. That you are responsible for your destiny. 

Of course, anyone can say those things set on their own. But Mrs Thatcher brought them down to earth. She demonstrated what determination can achieve in her own battles. She set aspiration in the context of limited state, lower taxes and an (unfinished) attempt to break dependency culture.

On Wednesday I will be going to pay my respects to Mrs Thatcher, but let it be known: her legacy lives not just in that lot in government now, but in the next generation of Conservatives too.