When I was a little girl, I was read a terrifying, horrific, mesmerising short story called The Patchwork Monkey. My God that story scared me. For weeks afterwards it haunted my dreams. My sister soon learned that if she wanted anything from me, anything at all, all she had to do was tell me the Patchwork Monkey was going to get me and I’d give her anything she wanted. The Patchwork Monkey was the bogeyman of my childhood and I have never forgotten the power it had to scare me into submission.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when if the government wanted to pass a law that they knew would be unpopular with certain sections of the population, they would invoke a bogeyman of their own. Unlike the Patchwork Monkey, terror had a basis in fact. Real people were really out to get us. In fact it’s probably because the people in that government were themselves so frightened of those real people, that they allowed themselves to turn them into a bogeyman for them and for the rest of us. They allowed themselves to get carried away with the measures they took to prevent a recurrence of the horror they had witnessed. Lock them up, harass them. Lock up people who might be them, who might know them. Shoot people who might be mistaken for them. When you’re scared enough, you’ll convince yourself of the necessity for just about anything that makes you feel safer – no matter if actually you aren’t safer, you aren’t protected and are possibly storing up trouble for the future. Tonight we sleep safely.
Time moved on. Things changed, the government changed. The new government wanted to reject everything the last Government had done. They don’t talk much about terrorism. That’s probably good. Most of the sensible measures are still in place and the ones that were bogey-based are being quietly dropped. That’s good too.
But the new government learned a lot from the last one. They learned that appealing to base instincts like fear can help you do what you want. It empowers you. But the things we are scared of changed too. Terrorism seems like a bit too much of an existential threat when we’re faced daily with redundancies, pay freezes, cuts to the things we took for granted. Now we aren’t scared that we’ll die, we’re scared that we’ll lose our lives. The lives we have built for ourselves, the lives we have planned for ourselves. The lives we are clinging to by a thread as we ignore the latest credit card bill.
When we’re scared we get mean. Not everyone. Not individually. There are great example of many wonderful people and groups throughout history who go the other way. Who got scared and got inspired. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that’s how most of us react. We’re human. We need to recognise the best, the worst and the everything in-between in us if we are to make an offer to our fellow humans to lead them in briefly organising our society.
When we’re feeling scared and mean, we need a new bogeyman to lash out at. While the new Government has done well at making the last government the scapegoat for the people’s pain, the real bogeyman they have set up are the fraudsters. Those willing to take what little you could be entitled to. Who – according to the legend – do nothing while taking money they are not entitled to. Take votes from good citizens like you.
For those who wish to challenge the bogeyman there is a problem in how you frame the fight. Like terrorism, fraud is wrong. The fact that despite the minimal likelihood of their occurrence, they have been built up in the electorate’s mind like a giant Patchwork Monkey means that the public themselves are calling for action. When real people suffer – loss of life or deprivation – they, their neighbours, family, friends and fellow citizens want to know something is being done.
That often what is being done is not helpful and sometimes positively harmful does not and will not stop the public being scared. You cannot simply deny the existence of the threat, of that thing that your fellows are so upset about.
We can’t answer questions about benefit fraud with statistics about tax evasion. That doesn’t get rid of the bogeyman. We have to answer questions about benefit fraud with answers about protecting and enhancing benefits for the vast, vast, vast majority of those who aren’t defrauding people (and we need to stop putting the wicked witch in charge of finding out who that is). We can’t answer stories of voter fraud with accusations of gerrymandering, but with calls for a decent robust system.
Fraud is the Emperor’s brand new terrorism. But we may have cried wolf once too often ourselves in the past to have permission to point this out. But don’t worry – they public will, and we will all get our happy ending.