Let us not be too hard on David Maclean, the Home Office minister who seems to be haunted by beggars demanding money in Scottish accents. Maclean never gives money but he does give them a piece of his mind—which is supposed to be worth having because he has a reputation as one of the brighter young Tory MPs. Speaking out is what he is used to; some time ago he had to be restrained from advocating that "vermin" be driven from the streets and praising the vigilantes—whose activities are, after all, outside the law. But Maclean is obviously under emotional stress as he is among an endangered species—Tory MPs who could be wiped out at the general election. So perhaps he can be excused for his attempt, albeit clumsy, to clamber aboard a bandwagon which is being propelled by the big political parties as what they hope will be a vote winner among those people who find beggars frightening or distasteful whatever accent they speak in.
It is not so long ago that we were subjected to an implicit instruction that homeless people and beggars might have been expected in Britain in an earlier, less enlightened age but are now confined to countries with lower standards of humanity and tolerance. Of course there were a few in places like the West End (Tory MP Sir George Young describes them as people you stepped over as you left the Opera) but these were eccentric, incorrigible. It is different now. All over the centre of cities such as London people sleep in shop doorways or under cardboard boxes and begging has spread out into suburban shopping centres.
The anger of people like Maclean is aroused because the beggars are an embarrassment. How much of an embarrassment can be gauged by the reaction of another Tory MP, Terry Dicks who came up to what are now the expectations of him by describing beggars as "scum" who should be “hosed out" of the doorways where they shelter. The embarrassment springs from the fact that the beggars are a massive, unavoidable, distressing testimony to the failure of Tory government. There was no hint, in their election campaign in 1979, that after almost 20 years of the Conservatives being in power, vagrancy would be the kind of problem to raise the ire of their MPs. But of course they can’t admit that it is evidence of their failure. So it has to be explained away as the result of personal shortcomings of the people concerned.
Maclean does not go as far as to call the beggars "scum"but he does say they are on the streets ". . . out of choice because they find it more pleasant". This is the standard response to any group of people—the unemployed, single mothers—who have the greater difficulty in surviving under capitalism in the 1990s. These people, we are told, actually prefer to scrape by on Income Support in a sky-high tower block or living rough in the city. There is no explanation as to why so many people suddenly suffer this same kind of personality problem all at the same time and just when an economic recession is in progress, only to recover somewhat when the recession recedes to give way to a boom. It is easier—and. the politicians hope, more fertile for votes—to lambaste the beggars and call for a policy of "zero tolerance".
There was a time when the Labour Party might have been expected to respond to "zero tolerance" with some deceptive clap-trap about civil liberties and human concerns, leaving some voters under the delusion that things would be different under a Labour government. They should know better now, as Tony Blair leads the way in denouncing the beggars with heartrending stories about what he sees at Kings Cross where he drops his children in the morning, on his way to a hard day’s planning of how he will run the social system which is responsible for such ugliness and for the human wreckage which gravitates to it. No doubt Blair is concerned for his children; he is also not unaware that policies like “zero tolerance” may have a vote-winning potential.
None of this is reassuring to people who assumed society had moved on from the days when rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars and vagrants could be whipped in every county they passed through or when someone could be imprisoned for inducing people to give them money by displaying wounds or deformities. If Blair and Tories like Maclean have got it right, it is no longer politically inadvisable to advocate punishing people for what capitalism does to them. A safer policy now, for the vote-hungry politician, is "zero tolerance".
A recent survey by Centrepoint, which offers shelter to homeless people, gave some idea of what their clients are like—and it does not fit in with the version offered by Blair and Dicks. Almost a third were aged between 16 and 17; a third had no income; almost a half had a GCE.CSE or GCSE; almost a third had slept rough; a quarter had been in local authority care. It says a great deal about capitalism and its political parties that the response to the "embarrassment" such people provoke in tourists, tradespeople and politicians on their way out of the Opera is to repress and damage them more than they have already experienced.
Aggressive and persistent demands for money are not monopolised by street beggars. A developing trend—probably a response to the decline in employment in the recession—is the business of young people going door-to-door in the evenings offering low quality cleaning material for sale. Another is the expansion of telephone canvassing—people who are employed to work their way through the telephone directory asking if you want to borrow money or have new windows fitted or whatever. These activities can be as intrusive as any beggar—while any profits which result from them will go to the employer.
So far no political leader has said that "zero tolerance" should extend to those kinds of activities. Nor have they suggested that it should be applied to the social system which saw profits to be made from the misery of a place like Kings Cross and which now wants it cleared up to accommodate a smarter, more profitable tourist centre. But zero tolerance is what we should have of capitalism—of its poverty, its famine, its diseases, of the misery and death it deals out to millions of people all the time. And zero tolerance of the politicians who deceive with their false remedies which either fail or even leave the system worse then before.