Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Disingenuous line of attack

There was always going to be an obvious line of attack on what David Cameron said the other day. It was, in fact, summed up by the Times headline of the speech:
David Cameron tells the fat and the poor: take responsibility
This angle is that the Tories are saying to the poor that it's all their own fault. Like Arabella Weir does in today's Independent:
Sure he gives a nod to social circumstances: "Where you are born – your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make – have a huge impact," Cameron generously concedes "But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make."
Doh, like, really? Like choosing to be born into a poor, woefully under-educated family to parents who didn't chose to send their kids to leading public schools. Those kinds of choices? Or maybe he means choices like not getting a job in the area you live where there's endemic, long-term unemployment?
Well, obviously not. Those would be the "where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make" bit wouldn't it? She quoted it in the previous paragraph, so you'd have thought at least that she'd have read it. There are other choices that people make that have damaging consequences: to take drugs, to smoke, to get pregnant early, to drop out of school, to have children outside of marriage.
Grasping the nettle, Cameron kept wading in. "We talk about people being 'at risk of obesity' instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise." Of course you're bleeding well "at risk" if you come from the socio-economic group most likely to eat badly as a result of being less well versed in good eating habits and with the least access to shops selling quality food at reasonable prices.
Wait - so these people aren't making a choice to eat poorly, they are directed by their socio-economic status to eat more expensive, less healthy food? This is entirely Cameron's point! No-one is 'compelled' by mysterious socio-economic forces to subsist on a diet of crisps and Irn Bru. It's not a conspiracy designed by the toffs or Old Etonians to make sure the poor die young. Everybody, but everybody, has been blasted with multifarious messages about how to eat. The most popular shows on TV are cookery shows, and not just the 'take a shaved truffle and add it to the caviar' sort either. If people are ignorant about how food works, then it really is their responsibility to sort it out. They're adults. That's the point.
Putting it another way, I'm a public-school educated Oxford graduate with Conservative leanings. My socio-economic group is particularly at risk of taking large amounts of cocaine and pouring champagne on tramps (apparently). That I didn't do either is because I am an autonomous being capable of making my own decisions about my behaviour. That's rather the point of being an adult.
Take me, for example. I'm a bit fat. Now, as Cameron suggests, I can choose not to be fat. As it happens, I actually can. I can afford a cleaning lady twice a week, and regular, reliable childcare. I have a supportive husband who organises his work to ensure he's with the kids as much as I am. I work in a well-paid industry where, in the main, I dictate the hours.
So, without any of the onerous, relentless, ordinary burdens of being a working mother I am freed up to go out running four times a week. I'm not getting any thinner but I'm definitely fitter. Mmm, Dave, I'm still a bit fat, though. Got any ideas?
I don't know, why not try eating more healthily and perhaps less? It's not Cameron's job to make you thinner though is it? It's yours, if you want to, and that's Cameron's point.
Oh, while we're at it, I'd better confess to drinking more than is officially advisable for women. My fault, again, definitely. I can afford nice wine and my life isn't so without hope that I need to drown my sorrows in a bucket of Special Brew every day so we're all right, for now. Who knows where I'd be if I'd been born in Glasgow East, for example, where a man's life expectancy is 61. Try telling him and his family their circumstances are their fault.
Well, apart from noting that you've probably got the answer to the 'why am I still fat?" question right there, lets go through this again. Probably the main reason that life expectancy in Glasgow East is 61 is alcohol and drug abuse. Saying that people drink because they're going to die young, when the reason they're going to die young is because they drink is really rather circular don't you think? No-one is really forced to become an alcoholic - and it's not the fault of an over-arching society if they do. People really are responsible for their actions, it's what makes us human.
And there is also a difference between 'it's your responsibility' and 'it's your fault' too. Entirely at random, the behaviour of your pets is your responsibility, but it isn't necessarily your fault. Being made redundant isn't your fault, but trying to find another job is your responsibility. There's a question to be asked in these cases - if it isn't my responsibility, then whose is it? Whose responsibility is Arabella Weir's weight loss programme? It isn't David Cameron's, it isn't the Department of Health's and it sure as hell isn't mine.

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