The same sick and twisted feeling always grows in my stomach when I’m completing a tax return. It starts small yet unmistakable just below the diaphragm, going on to pulse through arteries, veins and capillaries and into limbs, digits, and flushed cheeks.
With a spoonful of porridge raised halfway to my mouth, I froze, eyes darting across the red text encouraging me to call HMRC ‘to find out what to do next’. Without the three hours I’d need to spend on hold to HMRC to find out just how objectionable my return was, I snapped the laptop shut, and spent the last few moments before work mixing my breakfast around its bowl.
Cycling to work in the rain, chatting through meetings, typing up research—my every activity that day was hamstrung by the news. I didn’t mean to overreact, and there really was no evidence to suggest I was being investigated for anything more criminal than pressing a wrong button or selecting mutually exclusive options, but still. The ‘but still’ of my overactive brain had me imagining the fine notices landing on the doormat, the court summons when I couldn’t meet repayments, and the eventual criminal record for my wrongfully populated spreadsheet cell. Melodramatic, I know.
This imaginative excess was a relic of a former period in my life; a childhood being escorted by my mum to unknown drab buildings to meet unknown drab men to discuss her job prospects, or pretending we weren’t at home when another of his species came to the door. No anecdote quite epitomises this rooted fear of being caught out by ‘the man’—the DWP, HMRC, the council, the polis, and any other authority over our lives—than when my teenage brother mocked up a fake bill showing an astronomical debt to send to my grandparents on April Fool’s—I mean, how better to humiliate them than to remind them that they’re under the yoke of some debt collector’s database, right?
I connected the dots between this archive of fear and the anxiety of a badly completed return. This anxiety is not the one I’ve become used to, of doing budget sums every month to keep my head above water and ever so often if I’m lucky, out of my overdraft. This fear is unfounded, since at worst the offence is ignorance and confusion. But what could be more successful control than having citizen’s afraid of being caught out for something they didn’t even do?
The shame of hardship. The guilt of not having. The expectation of accusation.
This culture of fear and guilt is endorsed by Government action. We sanction the most vulnerable and precarious in society, forcing them to live in Victorian-era poverty. We now have more than a million people using foodbanks across the UK, not able to provide themselves and their families basic needs. We systematically destroy and sell community assets and services to the highest bidder (or someone’s best man), further ensuring that these people will be even more cut off. We lead students in the rest of the UK to debt they will never be able to pay off since the necessary salaries just don’t exist in our low-wage economy, pricing the poorest pupils out of higher education. And just to put the cherry on top of the grossly dehumanising buffet of austerity, we are being investigated by the UN for ‘systematic and grave violations’ into disabled people’s human rights. For all their rhetoric, this is not a government on the side of ordinary people.
We are reminded of these priorities when the large banks who threw cheap money into the engine of a one-way train to economic crash are bailed out, leaving the people aboard the carriages to find their own way back. Cameron’s ‘big society’ seems more sinister than ever in this light; not about encouraging resilience and innovation, but rather to pick up the pieces and fend for yourself or face castigation.
Perhaps most insidious in this heady mix of government failure and anxiety is the everyday effect this has on members of society, who don’t feel a part of a supportive citizenship, but instead somewhere between victims and criminals. Around 1 in 3 people in Scotland are affected by mental illness in any one year. The number of children admitted to hospital for self harming doubled between 2009 and 2014 in Scotland. Scotland is not a happy country. Beyond the negative impacts this has on our work, it also affects our families and home life, and reifies the breakdown in communities that catalysed it in the first place.
When the email telling me the IT problem in the return system has been fixed, I didn’t feel relieved. I felt like I had just missed an inevitable allegation. When more and more people are demonised and ruined, whether explicitly in policy, or implicitly in poverty porn TV and popular crusades against benefit fraud instead of tax dodging, I can’t help but assume that it’s a matter of time before my turn comes.