Without compassion and empathy, we are all poorer

No blogs in months and then two all at once. Stop it, I hear you saying, you’re spoiling us. Aye but just wait til you read it …

Yesterday the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond called for the welfare budget to be cut so that the MoD budget doesn’t have to be. The same MoD that has spent billions on equipment it doesn’t need and can no longer use in the last two years. That MoD, long a model of financial probity and restraint.

Meanwhile, the bedroom tax is wreaking havoc on the lives of people on benefits in social housing who have been told either to move (to a smaller property that doesn’t actually exist) or find an extra few hundred pounds a year to pay for all that lavish extra space they’re swanning around in.

Then there’s the switch from disability living allowance to “personal independence payments”, changes that the Coalition says will target those who need it most but which virtually all disability charities and campaigners like Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson believe will take away vital support from some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Looming large on the horizon is Universal Credit, Iain Duncan-Smith’s big idea to reform and simplify the welfare system but already considered so complex and unwieldy that it’s only being rolled out bit by bit because its creators know it’s an omnishambles waiting to happen.

I haven’t even mentioned the reform of the NHS which is nothing more than the dismantling of universal health care, putting responsibility for our health care in the hands of corporations not doctors.

Let’s not kid ourselves – the Tories (aided and abetted shamefully by their Coalition useful idiots the LibDems) are waging an ideological war on the people most in need in the UK.

The poor, the disabled, the sick – we’re all grist to the Tories’ relentless mill where the discourse is always private is good, public is bad. Or to put it another way, let’s give public money to our chums in the City because they’ll be so much more efficient in trousering it than those pesky civil servants.

And we’re letting them get away with it. The divide and conquer tactics of the Tories have been absolutely spot on. The rhetoric of strivers and scroungers is so laughable that it actually defies belief that people are swallowing it. But swallow it they have.

So the poor and the disabled and the sick have been identified as the major burden on the “hard-working families” of the UK, crucified by welfare cuts and demonised daily by politicians and commentators, aided and abetted by a willing media.

Times are tough but when did we lose our ability to empathise with those less fortunate than ourselves? When did it become ok to blame the victims of poverty for the situation they find themselves in? When even those on benefits are judgmental about fellow recipients and convinced everyone except them is on the take and on the make?

When did compassion become a dirty word?

I’m not denying that Britain’s welfare system is in need of reform. The system is so complicated and complex that even the staff who work at the DWP frequently haven’t a clue about how its different elements come together, as I know from recent experience. I’m not shying away from any uncomfortable truth that, for some people, life on benefits is all they know and want. But that is not the case for the vast majority, the silent majority who are sneered at for their misfortunate in having to seek state help.

A civilised society should be judged on how it cares for its old, its sick, its vulnerable. Every citizen of the UK should count, not just those considered to be worthwhile and worth listening to because they have a job or own their home or can afford medical insurance.

A favourite expression of my mother’s was “there but for the grace of God”. It is an acknowledgement that, through no fault of your own, your circumstances could change in an instant for the worst. It is also heartfelt thanks that you are not in that unfortunate position. It’s not an expression that passes judgment on the worthiness of the poor individual with whom you’re sympathising.

It’s an expression we could all use more often. That, along with a little more compassion and empathy from those of us who are “alright, Jack”, is sorely needed right now.

Without it, this country of ours is a much poorer place.


Good As You

I was about six years old when I knew I was gay. I didn’t know what the name for it was or even that there was a name for it. I just knew I liked girls in a way that I didn’t like boys. Not that I didn’t like boys – some of my best friends and all that.
Instinctively I knew that I shouldn’t tell anyone of these feelings, that I should simply be seen to behave like everyone else. And I did, even acquiring a ‘boyfriend’ for the entire summer holidays when I was eight (my first and last, you will not be surprised to read!).
Anyway, I won’t bore with you my coming out story, which happened when I was 23 and passed with remarkably little incident and pain. For this I have to thank my family and friends who were (in the main) tremendously supportive. I got several “I knew it!” reactions (no shit, Sherlock) and a couple of “So, do you fancy me? How no’?” (you know who you are, Elizabeth McLaughlin …).
Best response of all came from my sis Louise who was 15 at the time and was the very first person to whom I actually said the words “I’m gay”. Her reply? “Oh good, I can tell you I smoke now.” Sheesh, way to distract me from my emotional torment, sis!

The happiest day of our lives - why would anyone want to deny others that same happiness?
Anyway, here we are, 23 years on from that turbulent time and I’m almost one year into a civil partnership with Debbie – a formal recognition of our relationship that I could never have envisaged even a decade or so ago. Civil partnerships have been an extraordinarily positive step forward for our society and for all our citizens, regardless of their sexuality. They have been so successful that it’s no surprise that the move is now towards allowing gays and lesbians to marry.
So how depressing yet predictable this morning to read Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s deliberately inflammatory and offensive remarks on the possibility of the UK allowing same-sex marriage.
The Catholic Church has a lot to say on sexuality, on reproduction, on relationships. And virtually none of it is positive or life-affirming. In terms of providing a good example for its flock, the Church and many of its priests, bishops and cardinals have failed spectacularly over many decades
I was raised as a Catholic. And even though I’d lost what faith I had in both the church and god by my teens, I still hadn’t shaken off a lifetime of conditioning by the time I was ready to accept my sexuality. Telling my parents was the hardest thing of all, precisely because of their faith and their beliefs.
And they were devastated, confused and concerned that they might have done something wrong*, fearful for me and how other people would react to me.
It took wise words from mum’s brother, Andrew, to reassure both of them that it was okay, I was still me and nothing had changed except that I was finally being honest with the world.
Andrew is a Catholic priest.
He is the most compassionate and Christian of men, someone who understands the human condition in all its flawed and beautiful states. He is no plaster saint. He is a man who has made his own mistakes in life and because he accepts and acknowledges his own frailties, he is all the more understanding of those who come to him for guidance, spiritual or otherwise.

Like the colour of your hair or your eyes, the size of your feet or your nose, your sexuality is something you can do nothing about.

His faith in his god has never wavered, though his faith in his Church has been tested many times, particularly over the horrors of the child abuse scandals and appalling cover-ups.
I’m on the outside looking in at the Catholic Church now. I never needed any kind of blessing or recognition from the Church for the most important relationship in my life but many gay and lesbian Catholics do need and want it.
They will never get it from men such as Cardinal O’Brien who today described civil partnerships as “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”.
That kind of offensive, homophobic ignorance has to be challenged.
Like the colour of your hair or your eyes, the size of your feet or your nose, your sexuality is something you can do nothing about. You can choose not to act on your desires but you can do nothing to stop those desires in the first place. Ignorance, inequality and intolerance are what’s most harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of gays and lesbians.
For the sake of any gay Catholic (or any faith) struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, I hope the pastor they turn to for spiritual guidance and comfort is one like Andrew, not like the Cardinal.
And if same-sex marriage is introduced, Debbie and I will definitely say “I do” again and have another big party to celebrate.

*I have four brothers and was a terrible tomboy as a kid – mum was convinced if only she’d forced me to wear dresses, things would have been different!
On a similar note, my confused dad said: “But you like Celtic players!” Yeah, dad on the pitch, not off it!