Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A beautiful death


My mother, Joy Cooke, died last Wednesday, 24th May, at the age of eighty-seven. It was a peaceful end. Beautiful, in a way.

Mum had been ill for a long time. She had vascular dementia, triggered by an accidental morphine overdose after an orthopaedic operation in 2013. She also had COPD, brought on by a lifetime of smoking. For the first year of her slide into the oblivion of dementia, she was cared for by my father. But in August 2014, after she became doubly incontinent and both physically and mentally frail, he had to admit that her care was too much for him. She went into a nursing home that specialised in the care of those with dementia. There she remained until her death.

I wasn't there when she died. But I had been to see her earlier that day, along with my father and my youngest brother, Tim. She was very weak: though she reached out to each of us in turn to hold our hands, her grip was feeble. Sadly, she who had smiled so much during the last four years had lost her ability to smile.....Her head would fall to one side and her eyelids droop, then she would force her head up, open her eyes and reach for one of us again. It was as if she needed to know we were there.

I told her the names of those who were present, and added that my eldest brother, Simon, would be along later.

My father and I stayed for about half an hour, then I took him home, leaving Tim with my mother. Simon and his wife arrived about mid-afternoon and spent some time with my father before setting out for Mum's nursing home.

Mum passed away just after Simon and his wife arrived. It was as if she was waiting for them. Perhaps she had heard what I said.

There was no pain, no distress. She did not need the high dose of morphine prescribed for her to relieve the crisis of death. She just....stopped breathing. Death came quietly, and she went with him willingly.

This surely is how life should end, without fear or pain. When Death comes as a dearly beloved and long-awaited friend, it is beautiful, not just for the dying but for the living. For death brings hope, and the freedom to grieve.

Dementia is the cruellest of illnesses. It destroys the personality. The woman in the nursing home was not my mother. This strange new "Mum" was sweet, gentle, lovely.....she said little, but smiled at everyone. She was utterly charming, but not much like the clever, energetic, opinionated woman that I knew. It was as if my mother had died and been replaced by someone else, someone who did not know who I was, but who nevertheless greeted me with a huge smile and clung to my hand. I could not grieve for the mother I had lost, because there was this new, needy "Mum", whom I had to get to know.

For four years, my family has not really talked about our memories of Mum. How could we talk of the past, when she was still present but but tragically transformed? How could we grieve for her passing, when this strange new person was living in that nursing home? We were in limbo. Frozen. Numb.

Her death has sprung this trap of grief. Death came, not with a scythe but with a mithril sword, clearing the webs of horror in which we have been suspended, freeing our sleeping beauty from her prison. Now we are free to remember, and to grieve. The day after Mum's death, we talked for hours, sharing our memories of her. Death truly is a beautiful thing.

Strangely, we grieve now for two people - for the woman who died four years ago, and for the creature who replaced her. Dementia ends in a double bereavement, and a double grief.

And it also ends with dislocation. Even when Death comes as a friend, he leaves a trail of chaos. We had been waiting for four years for my mother's death, and yet when Death came, we were completely unprepared. It was as if, after years of appeals, we had been released from prison. Suddenly, we are free - but now what will we do?

Of course, there are things to do. A funeral to arrange. People to inform. Personal effects to dispose of. My mother was one of the most ecologically-friendly people that ever walked this earth, so the funeral is complicated, though organising a green burial now is considerably easier than it would have been thirty years ago when she first told me that was what she wanted. Green burials are fairly common now, but back then, no-one had ever heard of such a thing. "What do you mean, you want to be buried under a tree, with no coffin and no headstone?" Well, she will have a coffin, because they do biodegradable ones these days. But there will be no headstone, and her grave eventually will be marked only by the trees and plants around it. As was her wish, gardener that she was, her body will become compost.

But when all the organising is done, and we have laid her to rest in her quiet green grave, what then? Four years of winter is gone, and Spring returns, and with it, sorrow.
All suddenly the wind comes soft,
And Spring is here again;
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green
And my heart with buds of pain.
My heart all Winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the Spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more. 
But Winter's broken and earth has woken
And the small birds cry again,
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.
Life goes on, and so must we. And my forthright mother would not have it otherwise. "Go and dig the garden", she would say. Sow some seeds. Make new friends. Create something beautiful. Bring joy to someone's life.

As she did, during her lifetime. Mum brought joy to many people. To the old people at the Melvin Hall Day Centre in Penge that she ran for many years; to those who walked in the beautiful gardens she created; to her friends and family; and at the last, to the staff and residents of her nursing home. She truly lived up to her name. Joy, to the world.

Rest in peace, Mum.

Related reading: 

Broken windows, broken lives
Reflections on death and immortality

Image at the head of this post is part of the garden that my mother created in Minster, Isle of Sheppey, photographed by me. The poem is by Rupert Brooke. 

My mother spent many years developing and running services for the elderly. Her legacy sadly died before her, with the closure of Melvin Hall Day Centre in August 2016. But the need for services for the elderly is greater than ever. In her memory, therefore, we have set up a site where those who wish may make a donation to Age UK. The link is here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/joycooke

Below is my mother's obituary notice, written by my eldest brother, Simon Cooke.










Monday, 15 May 2017

Squaring the circle on immigration

It had to happen. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has refused to commit to a net migration target. Facing a barrage of complaints from the hospitality industry about potential staff shortages post-Brexit, Rudd appears to be softening the government's line. She told BBC Radio 5Live's Pienaar's Politics:
"My personal view is we need to continue to bring immigration down. I want to make sure that we do it in a way that supports businesses.”
So what way might that be, then? After all, her boss is on record as saying she thinks net migration should fall to the tens of thousands. Currently, it is in the hundreds of thousands: according to the latest ONS statistics, net migration for 2016 was 273,000 (net inflow), of which 164,000 was from outside the EU. Even if immigration from the EU stopped completely after Brexit, it would not be enough to bring net migration down to levels Theresa May considers "sustainable". The UK would also have to impose much more draconian restrictions on non-EU immigration. How this can be in any way supportive to business is difficult to imagine. No wonder Ms. Rudd doesn't want to have a definite net migration target.

But in the Sun, Ms. Rudd's interview with Pienaar's Politics comes across entirely differently:
THE HOME SECRETARY yesterday vowed to “push” big chains like Pret a Manger to hire more Brits – and kick their addiction to EU staff. Amid a fresh row over immigration targets, Amber Rudd said it was up to business to “look after people who are otherwise unemployed”.
And instead of quoting Ms. Rudd's business-friendly rhetoric, the Sun highlighted this comment:
“I did hear that Pret a Manger had come out and said it’s absolutely essential for us to have European workers because if we don’t we’re going to have to make more of an effort to recruit in the UK. Well, good. I’d quite like them to make more of an effort to recruit in the UK. So we will push them as well to do more in the UK.”
Oh yes, very friendly to business. Pret a Manger has already said it will try to recruit more British people. So Ms. Rudd's response is to say "we will push you to do even more". Riiight.

But I am wondering where the queues of British people waiting to work in Pret a Manger are. I haven't seen any, have you?

It is not just service industries like Pret that are under pressure to "hire British". The Sun says that manufacturers, too, need to "wean themselves off" cheap foreign labour. But where are the hordes of unemployed British that are being denied jobs?

The truth is that they don't exist. The latest Labour Force Survey shows that in the year ended February 2017, the total number of people in work rose by 312,000. Nearly three-quarters of adults aged 16-64 are in work: that is the highest proportion since 1971. Unemployment is the lowest it has been since 2004, and lower than at any time during the 1980s and 1990s:


In short, the UK does not have armies of unemployed and inactive people crowded out of jobs by high immigration. Despite net migration in the hundreds of thousands, British people are not struggling to find work.

Ah, but what about young people? Surely unemployment is higher among the young?

Well, it is - sort of. The unemployment rate among 18-24 year olds is currently 10.8%, which is about double the adult unemployment rate. Among 16-17 year olds it is much higher, over 25%.

But these percentages are deceptive. A large proportion of 16-24 year olds are economically inactive, mainly due to being at school, college or university. So although the percentage of unemployed is high, the actual numbers out of work are low. The Labour Force Survey says that in the three months to end April 2017, the number of 16-24 year olds describing themselves as "unemployed" was less than 600,000, and of those, nearly a third were students looking for part-time work. Nor do most young people remain unemployed for long. According to this Parliamentary briefing paper, at the end of February 2017 only 81,000 16-24 year olds had been out of work for more than 12 months, and the numbers are falling fast: a year before, the number of young people out of work for more than 12 months was 31,000 higher. Clearly, immigration is not stopping young people from finding work, either.

The fact is that British employment has been so successful in the last few years that now there are insufficient unemployed British people to fill the vacancies that would be left if net migration were reduced to the tens of thousands. And it would not be skilled jobs that went unfilled. Principally, it would be unskilled jobs in the hospitality, care and agricultural sectors.

The trouble is, many middle-aged and elderly voters are convinced that unemployment is still up at 1980s levels. After all, we had a recession, didn't we - and when they were young, recessions meant high unemployment. The 1980s recession was especially brutal and long-lasting: in 1985, youth unemployment was still 20%. And everyone keeps telling us that the 2008-9 recession was even worse. So there must be lots of unemployed young people. Or maybe under-employed young people, doing a few hours of casual work but desperately in need of a proper job. Stands to reason, dunnit?

The statistics tell a different story. The Labour Force Survey shows that even under-employment is no longer the problem that it was: full-time employment is rising fast. These days, the problem is low wages, not lack of jobs.

But people don't believe the statistics. Even though in the Labour Force Survey, those surveyed self-report their employment status, there is a widespread belief that the Government is fiddling the figures. Many people believe unemployment is much higher than reported. So they demand that firms should stop importing labour and employ British people. Amber Rudd's "hire British" resonates with them.

However, UKIP's policy of zero net migration resonates too, if only because it reminds older voters of their youth. Paul Nuttall clings to a romantic notion that EU migrant agricultural workers will be replaced by students picking fruit in their holidays, as he did when he was a student. I have news for you, Mr. Nuttall. These days, most students already work, not only in their holidays but during term time as well. So where is this army of student fruit pickers going to come from, pray?

UKIP's version of "back to the future", unrealistic though it is, puts Amber Rudd under pressure. She must somehow square the circle of being hardline on migration, thus attracting UKIP voters, while appeasing Tory-voting businessmen and women who fear that they will have to pay significantly higher wages once the flow of cheap labour from overseas is stemmed. Hence her confusing rhetoric, and her discomfort at being asked for hard figures. She is playing a spin game.

And it is a dangerous game, too. Of course, many people would welcome higher wages. But the other side of higher wages is higher prices. We have become accustomed to cheap food, cheap consumer goods, cheap entertainment, cheap care. So when the middle-aged and old can no longer afford to replace their cars every three years, because manufacturers have weaned themselves off their diet of cheap labour; when they have to cut down on their meals out because pubs and restaurants have put up prices in response to the higher wages demanded by their British staff; when buying fresh fruit and vegetables takes up more and more of the weekly food budget; when the cost of Granny's care home shoots through the roof.....then it will not be the 1980s that they remember. It will be the 1970s.

I wonder whom they will blame?

Related reading:

Intergenerational unfairness
Austerity and the rise of populism
Grieving for a lost empire
A dent in the surface of time


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Intergenerational unfairness


This thread on Twitter has attracted a lot of attention. It goes some way towards explaining why older people are generally in favour of Brexit, and why Theresa May's "strong and stable" mantra particularly appeals to the baby boomer generation. For those who aren't on Twitter, I've paraphrased part of the thread here.
I have been thinking about the "strong and stable" mantra, in the context of my mum, who thinks Theresa May is great. Mum is a product of post war Social democracy (born 1947). She got 6 good O levels despite failing the 11+, and went into the civil service. She got into a mess due to creating me with my irresponsible dad, but then met my stepfather, whom she is still with.
In material terms, since the early 80s my mum and my stepfather have had no money worries. They've had stability from their 40s to their 70s. And they also had stability in their earlier lives through full employment, the NHS, workplace/union rights, public sector employment, education. Although they were children in the first Austerity era (late 40s/early 50s), it was their parents who'd born the brunt of that. They had the stability of post-war social democracy. Then, from 1979 onwards, they got the income from the shares. They got the wealth from property price rises. They got the dividends of Thatcherism, and they also got the pensions from post-war social democracy.
So they've had a lot of stability. Stability was their era. If you appeal to them with "Stability" they recognise themselves. And because they did well out of the upswing of Thatcherism after the rockiness of the inflation years and the disruption and "discontent" of 1978-9, they also identify with "strong". They voted for Thatcher, and she put a stop to disruption and discontent.
To them, stability came under Thatcher because she was strong, and they see May, their contemporary, reflecting it back at them. They see "strong and stable" as values they associate with their own characters. They don't see themselves as being stable because of post-war social democracy. They don't see healthcare, education, housing, rights. They see themselves as having the right qualities, the right approach to life. Their stability comes from "working hard and saving", even though they've had more holidays than anyone I've ever met and were well into the bank of his mum and dad (civil service pension). And also, as gleeful Brexiteers, they don't see any of the stability or material comfort as having come from 45 years of EEC/EU membership. 
May's mantra of "Strong and Stable" resonates and reinforces how they see themselves. So they say things like, "I'm sure we'll get a good deal because Theresa May is strong" and "we can trade with Australia". Mum thinks Theresa May is "really good because I think she'll get us a good deal". This is just faith. Faith that being 'strong' works: faith that being 'strong' will restore Britain to what it was when they did well out of it. Being Strong will make you Stable.
It's delusional nonsense. It's the politics of Affect. But it's a structure of feeling. It ignores history, it locks on to characteristics. Also, of course, it's difficult to counter it by giving your parents a little lecture on the Post War settlement and the neoliberal rupture.
They see the struggles, failures & penury of their children as failures of New Labour. Borrowing money, switching jobs. They had stability because they were strong. We have instability because we are weak. We are flighty, we get into debt, we can't keep a job. Weak.
I say to them, what about my child? What about my 13 year old? She won't have what you had. Is that "strong and stable", Mum? Your granddaughter having to pay private health insurance when she might not even be able to get a job?
I see their "strong and stable", and I raise them "you have voted to make your grandchildren's lives unstable and precarious". I want to make them feel guilty for what they have done.
But when I talk to my mum and I say "you know your grandchildren almost certainly won't get a state pension" she says "I know".
They don't care. 
I've highlighted the comment that particularly attracted my attention. For to my mind, this is where the author's perception failed him (or her). You can't make people feel guilty about something they don't think is anything to do with them. And the baby boomer generation don't see their wealth and their entitlements as in any way connected with the materially poorer future faced by their children and their grandchildren.

Believe me, I have tried. I have spent endless hours explaining that NI contributions are not payments into a savings pot to be drawn on in retirement. I have spent almost as many hours trying to get across to older homeowners that the current value of their property has nothing to do with their hard work and everything to do with the insane rise in property prices since the 1960s. I have shown how the NI fund faces bankruptcy by 2020 unless either the state pension age rises significantly - for current generations, not just for the young - or NI contributions rise astronomically. I have patiently explained to those living on the income from savings that raising interest rates beyond what the economy can afford will make everyone, including them, poorer in the future. I have pointed out that the returns of the 1980s were anomalous and will never return. And I have commented that retaining the triple lock on state pensions, thus continually raising pensions above both earnings and inflation, will progressively immiserate the children and the unborn of today.

All my attempts failed. They did not want to know. When I said that today's pensions are paid by today's workers, and that tomorrow's pensions will be paid by tomorrow's workers (the children and unborn of today), I was shouted down. "WE PAID IN: YOU PAY OUT", they shrieked. Even those who did understand that current contributions pay current pensions, and that the wealth of the old is mirrored by the debt of the young, refused to accept any responsibility for the uncertain future faced by the young. They think they are entitled to their property wealth, their pensions and their benefits, and they are damned if they are going to relinquish any of them without a fight.

It's not that they don't care about the young. They do. After all, they have children and grandchildren. So they want their state pensions so that they can provide free childcare for their grandchildren, thus enabling their daughters to go out to work. They want the state to pay for their social care so that they can pass their property and pension wealth on to their children. They even want the triple lock to continue so that their children and grandchildren will in due course have higher state pensions.

They seem unable to see that the money they want to drain from the state to subsidise their own children must come from taxing other people's children, many of whom will be materially poorer than theirs. Or if they do see, they don't care. They don't see the cost of their demands as any of their concern. They have worked hard and paid in all their lives. Now it is time for them to reap their just rewards.

The real problem is that they do not understand the "social contract", on which our welfare system is based - and which forms the foundation of our entire social economy. The "baby boomers" have been systematically led to believe that their security in old age comes from their own efforts, not from ensuring that future generations have a bright future. That is the legacy of the "cult of the individual" which was the moral underpinning of Thatcher's revolution. The baby boomer generation bought former council houses, participated in the sell-off of state assets, contributed to defined benefit pensions, paid tax, NI and SERPS. They believe that through their own hard work and saving, they have provided for their own old age and acquired assets to pass on to future generations. Their property, pensions and benefits are simply the capital they have built up. They are entitled to them - in full.

So the reason it is so hard to shift their sense of entitlement, even though they know that future generations will not have such generous pensions and benefits, and may never own their own homes, is that they believe they have paid. Any attempt to cut their pensions and benefits, or reduce their returns from saving, or force them to draw on their wealth to pay for care, is thus seen as robbery.

But that's not how the social contract works. This is how the Government's report on intergenerational fairness describes it:
The welfare state has long been underpinned by an implicit social contract between generations. The provision of benefits and public services to the current pensioner population is funded by the taxes of the current working-age population. In turn they expect to receive similar benefits and services when they retire, and so on. 
The sad truth is that the baby boomers have not paid for their pensions and benefits. This chart - from research carried out in 2004, and cited in the Government's recent report on intergenerational fairness - shows that everyone born before 1971 will contribute less in tax over their lifetimes than they receive from the state, once things like free education and the NHS are taken into account: 


We should not be fooled by the percentages here. The oldest generation have paid in considerably less than they receive, but in money terms they both paid and received much less than those born since the war. Financially speaking, the people who have taken the most and paid the least are my own generation, those born 1956-61.

Of course, this research is out of date. The Government's report calls for further research to be undertaken, to determine what the situation is now. But it seems unlikely that the balance between tax and receipts has improved. It is more likely to have deteriorated, since people are living longer, state pensions and benefits have risen and the cost of the NHS is rocketing.

But as the Government's report explains, the contributions shortfall is not the only problem:
The UK economy has become skewed. Rapid and sustained rises in house prices have concentrated wealth in the hands of those who own property. Far too many young people cannot afford homeownership and instead have to pay costly private rent. Life expectancy has risen faster than anticipated at a time when the large baby boomer cohort, born between 1945 and 1965, are reaching retirement. As the taxes of working people support the retired, the ageing population places strain on those in work. Pensioners have been protected from public spending cuts that have largely been felt by younger groups. Pensioner poverty has been drastically reduced and average pensioner household incomes now exceed those of non-pensioners after housing costs. The millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2000, faces being the first in modern times to be financially worse off than its predecessors.
This chart (from the same report) shows just how skewed against younger people the housing market has become:


And this pair of charts shows all too clearly who, above all, bears the cost of the UK's disastrously distorted housing market:
Children do. After housing costs, 30% of children are in relative low income - compared to 15% of pensioners and 20% of working age adults. The report expresses concern about millenials, but the generation beyond looks in even worse shape.

The truth is that as long as younger generations remain "weak and flighty", highly indebted, insecure and poor, older generations' view of themselves as "strong and stable" must be a delusion. Strength and stability can only come from ensuring that future generations have prospects that are even better than those we had. By looking after themselves at the expense of future generations, older generations are undermining their own stability. And as if that were not bad enough, now they have shafted the young people on which their future depends. The economic fallout from Brexit will hurt young people far more than it will the property-owning, pension-reliant old.

The irresponsibility of older generations threatens not only the future of younger generations, but their own prosperity. Entrenching intergenerational unfairness, as the old seek to do, is folly.

Related reading:

Raising interest rates is not that simple, Lord Hague
The foolishness of the old - Pieria