On Saturday 13 April I joined UKUncut and DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) in a visit Iain Duncan Smith's country mansion.
I met a member of UKUncut the morning of their planned action. "This is the target," he said passing me what he had just written "IDS Country Mansion". It was the destination that I had hoped for.
A few escalator and tube rides later I found myself on a train to Milton Keynes newly joined by DPAC. I sat at a table opposite a blind man who was being interviewed by a video journalist. He complained about disabled people being referred to as vulnerable, arguing that since they were doing more than anyone else to fight the cuts, they were the strongest members of society. His words echoed through my mind for the rest of the day.
At Milton Keynes we waited for three taxis to take us the last part of the journey. Half of the group, who were previously unaware of the 'target', had it disclosed to them, which was then followed by a quick briefing on the planned action. Minutes later there was a gentle scolding, as more than one person had reflexively tweeted, risking the secrecy of the action.
The three taxis arrived. On the journey I spoke to a woman who was having her benefits cut. She had been abused physically and sexually as a child; in her own words she had been "tortured". Now half way through a second degree, she described trying to make up for a lost youth, whilst struggling with regular hospitalisations, as previously repressed traumatic memories paralysed her mentally and physically. Despite the horror she had been through she was one of the most inspiring and uplifting people I have ever met.
We left the taxis and made our way to Iain Duncan Smith's residence. There was no sign that they knew we were coming since the gate to the driveway was open. Until then I was unaware that the plan involved entering private property; I spoke to the legal team about the implications, but their answers were difficult to unravel; it seemed like a legal blur. Ordinarily this would be a step too far for me, but considering this was the house of the standard bearer for a movement currently driving people to suicide, stressing the sick to get sicker, and evicting poor people and the disabled from their homes, I thought it justified, but agreed to myself to go no further than the driveway following the footsteps of a normal visitor.
The long white gate was swiftly opened and we walked and wheeled up the gravel pathway. It appeared he was not home, but there was no real way to tell, since there were several acres and countless rooms to comfortably hide in. The entire grounds had an almost palatial feeling, perhaps amplified by being set in a picturesque slice of the countryside.
The two hours that followed involved putting up an eviction notice on the house, getting the message out into mainstream and non-mainstream media, and the usual speeches and rituals of a protest. We discussed the subtleties of welfare policy, the merits and downsides of the various petition websites, and the management and organisation of large scale actions. I shared time with some of the most informed and experienced veterans of direct action, people set on making tangible changes to society, and challenging the collective psychological framework through which we perceive the world. As I stood in the driveway of a seemingly vacant mansion, the bodies around me began to shiver in the cooling air and newly falling drizzle. There was a gentle breeze of hope. The atmosphere was positive, friendly, and constructive, the movement had a sense of confidence.
So what drove us to such action?
For me it would be cases like that of Stephen Hill who died from a heart attack 39 days after being declared 'fit for work' (for the second time, the first having being successfully appealed against) by Atos Healthcare. His son said "I've lost my best friend, (the) person I could talk to."
Or 29 year old Colin Traynor, who was told he was fit to work but appealed against the decision. He died from an epileptic attack. Five weeks later his family learned the appeal verdict had been successful. His father said: "I firmly believe - 100% believe - that the system this government introduced has killed my son".
It is currently impossible to know the precise number of people whose deaths may be linked to welfare policies of this government, since there has been no formal enquiry. So we must demand for an enquiry into the deaths related to welfare, asking that they be counted and investigated.
With a few noble backbenchers excluded, Labour has acted with consistent cowardice in the face these welfare assaults, as if they were challenging the Liberal Democrats to a contest in unprincipledness. In the currently hostile atmosphere, born of a calculated souring in the attitude to welfare recipients, few institutional allies can be found, either political or charity, which helps to explains the prolific emergence of direct action groups, and the large number of internet protesters and dissenters, both of whom have chosen to act outside of the traditional forms of representation.
There are, however, exceptions that should be celebrated:
The British Medical Association voted unanimously that Atos's Work Capability Assessment "... should end with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society".
Amnesty International UK has also recently stepped in, treating the welfare cuts as a human rights abuse. At its AGM on 14 April a resolution was passed saying "This AGM calls for urgent action to halt the abrogation of the human rights of sick and disabled people by the ruling Coalition government and its associated corporate contractors". It described the cuts as "(a) regressive & lethal assault on our rights".
But while valued and respected as allies, they do not yet comprise a large enough coalition to halt the government's policies, and this is why direct action is playing such a powerful role, and why UKuncut and DPAC decided to take the matter, quite literally, to the doorstep of power.
The day came to an end, the drizzle had turned to rain, and it was time to leave. The police had come shortly after we had arrived and a mutually agreed departure time had been set. Perhaps it is my imagination, but as the cuts have gone deeper, the police have seemed more sympathetic, after all, they are suffering too.
Once back at the Milton Keynes Station I ran down the stairs and hopped onto my train, and in doing so completed a series of seemingly simple actions that would be the envy of many of my companions that day. I reflected on the words of the man on the train that morning, he was right, the vulnerable were being the strongest, for without any pretence they had risen to defend the hard won rights that our ancestors gifted us. Despite the physical and mental barriers that many had to go through, they were surmounted them with strength and grace, and were doing more to protect the comfortable than the comfortable were doing to protect them.
That day had created an unsettling juxtaposition: the most disenfranchised and honourable people in society, taking the fight to the airy and vacuous house of a pious plutocrat, who repeatedly, and incredibly, refuses to engage with the people his policies affect.
In the years since the banking crash there has been endless talk about our economic crisis. Growth in economics, as in nature, cannot be limitless if it is to be sustainable. Our current resources if carefully and generously carved up are, for now, plentiful enough to go around. However beneath the economic crisis lurks a larger one, less often articulated: a moral crisis. While much broader than this current government, their particular response to the recent economic problems highlights this perfectly: at the slightest hint of lessening materiality, the rich man's hand grasps at the poor woman's purse.
The situation is desperate, but reversible. It requires the comfortable to join hands with those who are vulnerable, if for nothing else, since if they do not, they will be next.Suggest a correction