Events surrounding the Scottish independence referendum teach us how those in power become scared for their survival and what disabled people need to do in order to get politicians to take notice of us, says Mike Oliver.
The recent political goings-on in respect of Scotland’s independence reminded me very much of disability politics in the 70s and 80s. Disabled people then and Scottish people more recently were either ignored or patronised until suddenly the Westminster political elite realised that their own interests were threatened.
In the 70s and 80s, I lost count of the number of meetings, conferences or launches I attended where the responsible minister would either not turn up or send a substitute instead, usually pleading pressing business in parliament. When they did turn up, they always brought with them an entourage of civil servants and security men as if to protect them from the masses.
The format was always the same: they would be ushered straight to the platform, make their speeches and then leave immediately usually without taking questions. Sometimes they would offer a chosen organisation a few quid or announce the launch of their latest pet project in order not to lose all their credibility.
The basic rule was always the same too: never stop and speak to real disabled people. Occasionally a few ‘selected’ disabled people would be invited back to the Elephant and Castle, Richmond House or wherever else the plush offices were located at the time for a carefully controlled meeting.
Scottish people were treated in exactly the same way in the run-up to their referendum. Our political elite stayed mainly in London, making the occasional carefully staged foray north of the border and inviting a few Scottish politicians south.
All that changed when in the last two weeks of the campaign our political leaders realised that Scotland might vote for independence and that history would blame them if it did. The sight of 100 politicians being herded onto a train north to tell the Scottish people they really did care about them was one of the funniest things I’ve seen for ages. It’s a shame they couldn’t have been forced to travel in the guard’s van.
Even the Queen panicked at one stage and reportedly expressed her concern. I suppose the thought of giving up Balmoral to the Scots and spending her Christmas holidays in a Premier Inn on the outskirts of Glasgow with dozens of her relatives and staff was too much to bear – not that there’s anything wrong with a Premier Inn.
What all this tells us is that our political masters only care about what we think when their own interests are threatened. Only when disabled people were able to rebuff their patronising nonsense and offer our own social model explanation of our situation with the strategies to back it up, did they listen. Only when the Scottish people said we know what we want and how to get it, did they listen.
But one thing that the political elite is very good at is giving the impression that they are actually listening to us when, in reality, they are just looking for ways to nullify our demands and control our actions. Disabled people discovered that in the late 90s and we still haven’t recovered. The Scots too are about to discover that all the things they have been promised will soon disappear into thin air as issues like international terrorism, the broken economy and the war on the poor take over.
Perhaps we all get the political representation we deserve. This is certainly something to remember as the next general election approaches.