what do we expect from the state? – LabourList

On Westminster Bridge the other night, Australia’s ABC channel reporter Barbara Miller was looking for someone to do a vox pop with those queueing to see the Queen lying in state. She asked an older man: “Can I ask where you’ve come from?” The man points at parliament just behind him, and said: “Well, I used to work just over there.” Interest piqued, Miller asks tell me more and he replies: “I was Black Rod.” This is the title given to the Queen’s representative in parliament. As it turns out, one of his duties was to plan the Queen’s lying-in state.

Miller found herself asking the former Black Rod whether he had spent much time alone with the Queen, to which he modestly replies “many times”, that she had a very good sense of humour and that so does her eldest son. Miller is now aware that she has stumbled on an award-winning piece of TV. Although the man has already told her, “I’m just normal now, I queue like everyone else”, she wanted to know who exactly she has interviewed. General David Leakey comes the reply.

The long Wikipedia entry for lieutenant general Arundell David Leakey, CMG, CVO, CBE, son of major general Rea Leakey, confirms that he is a member of the British elite. If we reordered everyone in the queue David is in by income, with those earning most nearest to seeing the Queen lying in state, we could make an educated guess that he would not have very long to wait. In 2019, the median wage in Britain was around £29,000 a year. With an income of £93,000, he earned more than 97 out of 100 of us. Moreover, the very richest rely on earnings for only 59% of their income, 18% comes from investment earnings, so it is very likely that Leakey’s income is much higher. Much of his career has been in serving the elite, whether in parliament, in the army, in education or in business. The elites within each of those sectors reinforce one another. As he told the reporter, our new monarch Charles III is also an experienced businessman – having run the Duchy of Cornwall estate worth some £1bn, which now passes to William tax free.

Recent economic and political events have exposed the need for us to become much better at distinguishing the difference between the interests of the elite and those of the majority – and hopefully we will have succeeded by the next general election. In Europe, only Bulgaria is more unequal than Britain. Our government has been supremely successful at maintaining and protecting the interests of a very small elite, while claiming to be acting in the interests of the majority. The charming and modest man queuing on the bridge symbolises the subtle way in which the very wealthiest and most powerful in our country convince everyone else that we are all in it together. This is how, for example, the Conservatives can depict tax rises on the wealthy as attacks on middle Britain, when 19 out of 20 of us earn less than £80,000 a year – and would not be affected by them.

The Daily Mail wrote the interview up. Its angle: that Miller was not aware of the position of Black Rod nor that the Australian parliament had one too. Barbara is pleased to have made it into the Daily Mail and told us: “My work here is done.”

What struck me most about the encounter between the Australian journalist and the former Black Rod was the contrast between the pride that Leakey had in having been part of such a high-status and well-prepared public event and the neglect and invisibility in our national psyche of the care sector – a part of our state that lacks the status, resources and strategic planning that he had been part of in leading the lying in state preparations. As I wrote earlier this year, morale across the sector is at an all-time low, fighting spirit has been replaced by apathy. Home care workers can no longer afford to buy petrol to get to their clients. The working conditions that have been pushing staff out of our care system in droves have got worse.

I couldn’t help but compare the meticulous coordination and planning of the lying in state of one woman to the circumstances in which tens of thousands of care home residents who, loved just like the Queen, died during the pandemic. I thought of the government’s mishandling of risk and lack of regard for the care of our country’s elderly, described by the chair of parliament’s public accounts committee as “reckless” in allowing patients to be discharged to care homes without Covid tests at the start of the pandemic – such as the mother of my friend, who had mild dementia and had been in hospital with a kidney infection when the pandemic hit. She was discharged, not back home to her husband but to a care home. She died shortly afterwards, not having said goodbye to her family.

Robin Wight, a former colonel in the British army, also interviewed in the queue, this time by London correspondent for The Washington Post Karla Adam, described the queue as “something we have in Britain, which is that we’re used to it and we’re used to being obedient in that way… but, here, this is a magical moment that we’re sharing together”. Not too long ago, there were similar moments in the pandemic. That public consciousness has reemerged again in our response to the Queen’s death. As Labour MP Clive Lewis has put it, “what is prevalent is the expressed need to feel part of something more than themselves”.

As the Queen lay in state, I wondered if Britain will also remember something else that we are part of, that is more than ourselves. As David Willetts, one former Conservative cabinet minister acknowledged recently, the state can and should take on more risk than any one of us. It is a safety net, always there, that we rely on throughout their lives. It is also a collective institution that has been utterly decimated by Conservative policies for over a decade. As the late John Hills concluded in Good Times Bad Times: The welfare myth of them and us: “When we pay in more than we get out, we are helping our parents, our children, ourselves at another time – and ourselves as we might have been, if life had not turned out quite so well for us. In that sense, we are all – nearly all – in it together.”

Founder of LargerUs and Ivor Williams Alex Evans, an expert on end of life care, posed three deep questions this week – of ourselves and each other – as we make sense of our collective grief. What is being revealed about ourselves? What needs to be healed? And what might try to be born? As we bury the Queen in an ageing country, with an estimated 1.6 million people living with unmet care needs, now is exactly the time to question what we expect from our democracy and the state. What value will we place on something larger than ourselves when we come to the end of our lives and need to be cared for? How long will we be able to obediently wait?

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