Please can we all stop pretending to be independent?

I’ve been campaigning about mental health or over 20 years. In that time, some of my views have remained firm and others have changed or developed. One of the things that bothers me more than it used to is all the talk we face about being “independent”.

Of course, independence in some contexts can at times be a worthy goal. If you’re wanting to do something on your own that you previously could not, and that personally matters to you, then fair enough, go for it.

If you don’t want to be dependent on someone who has too much influence over your life, your home, your work or your money, then you may well talk about “independence” to mean no longer being so dependent on that person, which may be very important. I certainly don’t mean to discourage you.

However, it can be hard to resist the lie that we all can and should be “independent”. People who turn to social security for help (which is what it is there for) are told they should not “rely” on state benefits. They are accused of “welfare dependency”. Everybody is encouraged to be “financially independent”.

This attitude is not only wrong and immoral; it is absurd. It has no connection with reality. Nobody is independent.

I have just drunk a cup of tea. To do so, I depended on hundreds of people on the other side of the world, who picked the tea. I depended on hundreds more who packed and transported the tea. I depended on the people who put the tea into tea-bags, who designed the boxes in which the tea-bags were sold, who worked in the supermarket at which I bought the tea-bags. That’s even before I consider the sugar and milk, and the supply of water to the taps in my kitchen.

I cannot drink a cup of tea without depending on literally thousands of people.

In a less tangible but equally important way, good mental health can rarely if ever be achieved in isolation. It depends amongst other things on our connections with others and the nature of the communities and the society of which are part. When the economy and culture of society encourage greed and prejudice, mental health is one of several things that suffers.

The attack on “welfare dependency” implies that it is the poorest people who are the most dependent. This is the opposite of the truth.

Rich people recieve their wealth from others. The wealthy owner of a business is dependent on all the people who work in that business, and often on those who buy its products as well. People who profit from buying and selling shares are dependent on the workers in a vast range of businesses that they seek to profit from. Billionaires are dependent on the rest of the population not overthrowing them and redistruting their wealth. So-called “wealth creators” create wealth only through the labour of the thousands they employ, who are the real wealth-creators (billionaires don’t create wealth on their own, do they?).

I suggest that we need instead to embrace interdependence, in which we rely on each other as equals to meet our own and each other’s needs. This requires fundamental changes to our very unequal society. We cannot even begin this process unless we challenge the attitude that praises rich people for supposedly being independent, and condemns poor people because they are not.

The personal is political and the political is spiritual

One of the good things about using a lectionary is that it causes us to look at parts of the Bible to which we might not otherwise pay much attention. At times it has the opposite effect: it leads us to overlook certain passages.

If you’re not familiar with the concept: a lectionary is essentially a list of designated readings, setting out which passages of the Bible will be considered each week. Many churches use one to determine the Bible passages for the weekly Sunday service, on which the sermon is often based.

If you’re part of a church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, then a few weeks ago you will have read (or heard) Mark 4,35-41, in which Jesus is asleep in a boat before calming a storm. The next week, you would have been on to to Mark 5,21-43, which starts with Jesus’ return journey on the boat. The lectionary missed out Mark 5,1-20, which tells us what Jesus did while he was on the other side of the lake. What he did there was to cast a legion of demons out of a deeply disturbed man into a herd of pigs.

The man’s suffering sounds unbearable. He was living alone in caves and harming himself. I cannot imagine what he went through. Everyone avoided him – except Jesus.

This man’s suffering was not just an individual matter. “My name is Legion,” say the demons possessing him. “For we are many”.

“Legion” had a clear meaning to Mark’s original readers. It was a unit of the Roman army. It did not simply mean a large number. The Roman army possessed the land of the Jews and a Legion possessed this man. It is widely recognised that rates of mental ill-health increase at times of political and economic turmoil. Here we have a man who is suffering terribly. The form his suffering takes, and how it is seen, is greatly affected by the context in which he lives.

Jesus’ response is personal and political. He casts the Legion into a herd of pigs (who were possibly there to feed the Roman occupiers). The pigs rush over a cliff into the sea –triggering an association with the Egyptian army cast into the sea as the Israelite slaves fled Egypt. This political act has very personal consequences. Soon the man is no longer self-harming. He is “clothed and in his right mind”.

The personal and political cannot be separated. Nowhere is the link more obvious than when it comes to mental health. For those of us with mental health problems, the chances of help and recovery are closely tied up with funding levels and economic priorities. Only today, shocking new evidence has revealed the appalling lack of available mental health support for children in the UK.

When the UK government announced the first lockdown, they appeared to have no plan for mental health. Some people found their anxiety or other mental health problems exacerbated by Covid. Others found their support networks cut off, or became extremely lonely during lockdown.

The personal is political and the political is spiritual. Jesus meets this distressed man not only with a personal cure or a piece of political theatre but with healing that comes from God. Today, Jesus continues to confront us with the mindbendingly transformative power of the Gospel. As we continue to inflict pain on ourselves and each other, may God help us to trust that there is no area of life – whether we label it personal or political – that the Gospel cannot reach.

The above article is adapted slightly from an article that I wrote for the newsletter of the church to which I belong, New Road Baptist Church in Oxford, on 2 July 2021.

Is Keir Starmer terrified of challenging militarism?

I wrote thie article for Left Foot Forward, where it was published yesterday (30 June 2021).

It’s a long time since British peace activists received pro bono legal advice from a young lawyer called Keir Starmer. The last week has been full of stories related to issues of peace and war, but the Labour Party seems to be missing in action.

When the Armed Forces Bill came before the Commons on Wednesday last week (23 June), several MPs welcomed the degree of unity in Parliament. Unity is not always a good thing, especially when it leaves powerful institutions unscrutinised and their practices unquestioned.

Encouragingly, Labour and the SNP backed an amendment to ensure that forces personnel accused of certain serious crimes, including murder and rape, would be dealt with by civilian courts rather than military courts. Even this was framed in the mildest terms with virtually no criticism of the fact that the armed forces are the only institution allowed to run their own criminal trials. The Tories voted down the amendment, which was defeated by 355 votes to 272. Labour made little if any attempt to publicise the issue.

In a busy week for ‘defence’ issues, this was the last sign of hope that the Labour front bench might differ at all from the government.

On the same day, HMS Defender clashed with Russian forces in disputed waters. Labour rightly criticised the military aggression of the Putin regime, but failed to explain why Johnson’s behaviour was any better. Russian and British governments use each other’s militarism to justify their own. Starmer offered no alternative perspective.

This government’s passion for everyday militarism reached new depths on Friday with the promotion of ‘One Britain, One Nation’ Day, with schools encouraged to fly flags and organise children into singing supposedly patriotic songs. Thankfully, some Labour MPs joined in the general derision that greeted this alarming idea, but the Labour leadership seemed unwilling to challenge it outright.

Starmer offered no words of congratulation or support when, later that day, the Supreme Court quashed the convictions of four Christian peace activists who had been arrested at the DSEI arms fair in London, with judges ruling that blocking a road can at times be a lawful form of protest.

On Saturday morning, party leaders rushed onto social media to celebrate Armed Forces Day. Boris Johnson’s message was militaristic; Keir Starmer’s was even more so. Starmer declared: “Around the world, British forces personnel are at the heart of delivering peace”. He did not explain how he thinks they do this.

While the Labour front bench is thankfully still opposing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, they are distinctly quiet about the role played by UK troops in training Saudi forces. A major part of the work of the British military involves delivering training and support to various regimes – but Starmer ignores this in favour of a bland and romanticised notion of troops promoting “peace”.

Starmer did offer a criticism of the government in his message – but he effectively criticised them for not being militaristic enough. He attacked, as he has done previously, Boris Johnson’s very slight cut to army personnel numbers. Johnson announced that cut at the same time as he confirmed plans for the biggest percentage increase in UK military spending since the Korean War, along with an increase in the limit on UK nuclear warheads. This was in a year in which Covid has served as a deadly reminder that weapons cannot protect us from the gravest threats that we face, including pandemics, poverty and climate chaos.

The next day came the revelation about the soggy Ministry of Defence documents found at a bus stop. They exposed MoD preparations for a Russian response to HMS Defender, including discussions about how to promote the MoD’s own narrative around it. It was not the innocent operation that ministers had claimed. Rather than calling for the documents to be published as a matter of public interest, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey criticised the MoD for allowing them to come to light.

Within the Labour Party, and other opposition parties, there are many people willing to challenge dominant militarist narratives and to hold the MoD and armed forces to account. Yet Starmer and his colleagues seem terrified of doing so. I have frequently heard Labour MPs and their allies justify this on the grounds that questioning military policy would lead to a loss of public support. Have they forgotten the Iraq war so quickly?

Many middle class liberals readily accept patronising and snobbish assumptions about working class voters being gung-ho for war and militarism. They are not; they are capable of thinking independently. The last week suggests that this is not an ability shared by Keir Starmer and John Healey.

Palm Sunday is about an unlawful protest

It is Palm Sunday today, when Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as his supporters waved palm leaves. In a clear parody of a royal procession, Jesus challenged the Roman imperial rulers and the religious leaders who colluded with them.

The message of Jesus continues to pose a challenge to the power structures of the world. Jesus called for loyalty to the kingdom of God, an upside-down community in which the first are last and the last are first, unlike any kingdom in the normal sense of the word.

Jesus thus challenges us all to consider our priorities. That is why I find Palm Sunday both inspiring and disturbing.

Since the fourth century in particular, the powers of this world have found ingenious and innumerable ways to domesticate the radical message of Jesus. Palm Sunday serves as an example of this.

Many churches – outside of lockdown times – literally bring a donkey into church to mark the occasion. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this in itself: riding on a donkey was a way in which Jesus fulfilled a messianic prophecy and also satirised a military procession. But reducing Palm Sunday to a day on which you have the excitement of a donkey in church risks turning this revolutionary and disturbing event into a fluffy and comfortable story.

Any Tory MPs marking Palm Sunday today have, I dare say, found a way to reconcile their celebrations with their support for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – nicknamed the Police Crackdown Bill – which will impose severe long-term restrictions on peaceful protests. Amongst other undemocratic measures it will allow the police to impose limits on the start times, end times and noise levels of static protests as well as marches. In recent days, some of those same Tory MPs (and some others too) have been falling over each other in their rush to express their support for the police violently attacking peaceful protesters in Bristol and Manchester.

Had the Tories and and their allies been there on the original Palm Sunday, I dare say that the Daily Mail would have reported that Jesus’ supporters were violent thugs who had attacked law-abiding Roman soldiers with the sharpened branches of palm trees.

However, Palm Sunday is a challenge to all of us, not just to those with power. I, like most Christians, like to believe that had I been around then I would have supported Jesus to the end. But some of his most famous followers failed to do this. How many of us would have waved palm leaves as Jesus rode into Jerusalem but joined the crowds shouting “crucify him!” a few days later?

So let’s allow ourselves to be challenged on Palm Sunday. But also, let us recognise the challenge that the original Palm Sunday posed in particular to political and religious leaders, and to the unjust structures that sustained them. If a Palm Sunday celebration does not involve a political challenge, then I have to say that I’m really not sure that it’s worth participating in.

The misuse of LGBT History Month shows why we need it

Nothing shows the need to remember queer history more than the attempts to misuse the language of LGBT rights.

This misuse has been even more visible than usual during LGBT History Month, which finishes today. Ironically, it is the very misuse of LGBT History Month that shows the need for LGBT History Month.

During this month, it’s been good to see so many groups comment on the importance of LGBT+ rights and their history. They include trades unions, schools, universities, faith groups, local authorities and small businesses. They also include large, powerful and exploitative corporations.

The fact that so many organisations want to declare their support for equality is a sign of how much progress has been made. On the other hand, if we’re really celebrating LGBT history, we’ll remember that LGBT+ rights movements have always challenged comfortable, mainstream, unequal, class-based convention. They can’t simply be co-opted into capitalism without losing their essence.

Some people are claiming to celebrate LGBT History Month while actively promoting homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. The Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence have been posting on social media throughout February, claiming to support LGBT rights. Meanwhile, they are providing military training to the armed forces of homophobic regimes around the world.

Today, the organisers of Pride in Surrey lied on Twitter when they posted about the first Pride in Surrey event in 2019. They claimed it was “the free event that welcomed everyone”. In reality, people were told by stewards to leave the event in 2019 when they peacefully carried placards objecting to the fact that Pride in Surrey was sponsored by the arms company BAE Systems – a major supplier of weapons to the regime of Saudi Arabia, whose forces lock up, torture and kill LGBT people.

It seems that some of the celebrations of LGBT History Month involve forgetting some very recent history.

History is about learning from the past for the sake of the present and the future. History involves asking difficult questions about messy, complex and controversial issues. History is something you do, not simply something you talk about. History cannot be neutral. LGBT History Month cannot be neutral in world in which there is so much to celebrate, and so much that needs to change.

What Jarel Robinson-Brown did not say

Right-wing social media users have driven themselves into a frenzy of outrage over a tweet written by a Church of England priest named Jarel Robinson-Brown. The front page of today’s Daily Star features calls for him to be sacked.

I strongly suspect that some of those attacking Jarel are motivated in part by the fact that he is black, gay and left-wing. Mostly, however, they are attacking him for things that he has not said.

Jarel has been accused of insulting Tom Moore, the 100-year old fundraiser who sadly died recently after raising millions for NHS-linked charities. Jarel has also been accused of insulting white British people.

He has done neither of these things.

The tweet in question read:

The cult of Captain Tom Moore is a cult of white British nationalism. I will offer prayers for the repose of his kind and generous soul, but will not be joining the ‘national clap.’”

Whatever you make of this viewpoint, it is clear that Jarel was not criticising Tom Moore but the use of his memory. Indeed, he described Tom Moore as “kind and generous”. Nor did Jarel attack white British people; he attacked white British nationalism.

It is one thing to disagree with Jarel (which is fair enough). It is quite another to accuse him of saying things he has not said.

Jarel Robinson-Brown removed his tweet on the day it was posted, acknowledging that the timing and wording were insensitive. However, other people, including other clergy, have made similar comments. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the person who was most attacked for taking this sort of view is black, gay and the sort of person who right-wingers in the Church love to hate.

Now right-wing Twitter warriors who claim to be “free speech advocates” and who regularly attack “cancel culture” have driven Jarel off Twitter and set up a petition calling for him to be sacked. Speaking as someone who has often recieved abuse and even death threats from far-right types, I know that there are few people so easily offended as gung-ho nationalists.

Journalists on papers such as the Daily Star and Daily Mail know very well that accusing people of misusing Tom Moore’s memory is different to criticising Tom Moore. A lot of hate-mongering relies on intelligent people pretending to be stupid, well-trained journalists acting as if they cannot understand nuance.

Like most people, I admire Tom Moore, who became a celebrity at the age of 99. His fundraising actions suggest he is compassionate, dedicated and courageous. Jarel Robinson-Brown described him as “kind and generous”.

Admiring Tom Moore does not mean supporting people who have misused him to promote nationalism and militarism. The Covid pandemic is a reminder that our compassion cannot stop at borders and that we need to work together to find global solutions. Despite this, Tom Moore is frequently portrayed as somehow representing Britain, as if Covid were a particularly British problem that only British people could solve.

Shortly after Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts began, he was being described as “Captain Tom”, as if his former membership of the army somehow made him more worthy. He later became “Captain Sir Tom” – referred to by three words, only one of which is actually a name. He was made an honourary colonel at the Army Foundation College, where 16-year-old recruits are taught to kill, two years before they are old enough to buy a violent video game. Today, the Ministry of “Defence” tweeted about recent activities undertaken by the UK armed forces and claimed that they were building on Tom Moore’s legacy (they conveniently failed to mention their key role in training the Saudi forces bombing civilians in Yemen).

It is possible to criticise all these developments without attacking Tom Moore himself. We can also celebrate Tom Moore while also praising the other people of a similar age who have also undertaken heroic fundraising efforts during the Covid crisis. Nor is it insulting to Tom Moore to suggest that if Boris Johnson really wants to honour him, he could perhaps commit to funding the NHS properly rather than rely on the charitable efforts of heroic centenarians.

Amongst those who have behaved most deplorably in this situation is the Diocese of London in the Church of England. They rushed to hide behind the pillars of establishment respectability. Their statement began by referring to “Jarel Robinson-Brown’s comments regarding Captain Sir Tom Moore”, ignoring the fact that his comments were not primarily about Tom Moore but about the reaction to his death. The Diocese’s statement contained several sentences criticising Jarel Robinson-Brown and one short sentence criticising the racist abuse he is now receiving. “A review is now underway,” it said ominously. “Led by the Archdeacon of London”.

Faced with a choice between backing a prophetic voice under attack or siding with the forces of establishment and nationalistic outrage, it is rarely difficult to know which position the leadership of the Church of England is likely to take.

Contrast the treatment of Jarel Robinson-Brown with Richard Poole, a Church of England vicar in Surrey. Last year, Richard Poole criticised the Black Lives Matter movement in his sermon and spoke about race in such a way that a black churchwarden resigned. Poole’s bishop defended him after a rather vague apology. The story barely made the media beyond the Christian press and the likes of Piers Morgan and Laurence Fox did not take to Twitter to criticise him.

Thankfully, while church leaders are rushing to grovel to the right-wing lynch mob and side with the idols of nationalism, the London wing of the Student Christian Movement, the LGBT+ Society at King’s College London and the Anglo-Catholic Socialist Collective have all bravely issued statements of solidarity with Jarel Robinson-Brown.

It is a reminder that the future of Christianity lies with grassroots movements, not with institutional denominational leaderships. It is at the grassroots that Jesus’ gospel of love and liberation is most faithfully proclaimed and lived out.

Lisa Nandy and the power of the militarist lobby

I wrote this article for Left Foot Forward. It appeared on their website on Tuesday 26th January 2021.

British militarists scored another victory on Sunday. From their armchairs, they deployed their usual weapons of outrage and misrepresentation, via social media and the Mail on Sunday.

As usual, their enemy was chosen for having apparently failed to show unquestioning devotion to the military establishment. Before the morning was over, their target had backed down and voiced support for major militarist assumptions. Everyday militarism had won again.

It began with the Mail on Sunday attacking Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy. The headline declared: “Labour’s Nandy praises report calling for woke ‘peace force’ to replace army”.

Press v Reality

In reality, the report in question called for reforms to the army and its role, suggesting that British troops should operate in ways that sound similar to UN peacekeepers, and work alongside aid workers and other civilians. It did not suggest abolishing or “replacing” the army.

Speaking as someone who does want to abolish armed forces, I found the report’s proposals fairly mild, but there is some good stuff in it. Published by Open Labour, it is called A Progressive Foreign Policy for Our Times and takes a reflective and thought-provoking tone.

Far from being an extreme left-wing document, it calls for resistance to “strongmen” of both right and left and rightly challenges the left to be consistent in challenging injustice whoever is responsible for it.

The Mail‘s journalists are not stupid. They know that the report did not call for the army to be replaced. Even the sub-editor who wrote the headline knew that, if they had read the article. People can tell the difference between reforming something and abolishing it. Most people also know that welcoming a report does not mean endorsing every word of it.

It says something about the arrogance of some middle-class journalists and politicians that they seem to think that most members of the public are not capable of understanding this.

Marred record

To be fair to Lisa Nandy, she had little time to make nuanced points when she was questioned by Andrew Marr on Sunday morning. Nonetheless, she could have trusted viewers to understand that she could agree with parts of the report but not all of it. Instead, she said, “I didn’t applaud the report and that is complete and utter rubbish”.

Nandy added: “We’ve always stood up for the armed forces, we’ve always stood up for this country. When I first got appointed as Shadow Foreign Secretary, I said that national security would be our top priority.”

It would be difficult to write two sentences that contain more militarist assumptions than these. Nandy conflated support for the armed forces with support for Britain; she implied that supporting the armed forces meant that she would not want to change them; and she equated security with armed force, ignoring the things that really make us secure, such as healthcare, housing and freedom from poverty.

For members of the Peace Pledge Union such as me, the report goes nowhere near far enough. But what alarms me is that even mild deviations from the militarist line are now beaten down so quickly.

How it works

The Nandy story followed a familiar pattern. It goes like this.

Firstly, a public figure says something that is deemed to be unsupportive of the military.

Secondly, the militarist lobby, usually via the Mail or the Sun,attack the person in question.

Thirdly, the politician or their party quickly backs down, declaring their uncritical devotion to the armed forces and implicitly accepting the militarist line that it unpatriotic to want to change anything about them. Everyday militarism marches on.

This is not only a problem with Labour under Keir Starmer. When Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, he was pressurised almost straight away into saying that he would not wear a white poppy on Remembrance Sunday, leaving the Sun to attack him instead with the claim that he had not bowed deeply enough at the Cenotaph.

The Liberal Democrats went from a nuanced if confused position on nuclear weapons to Jo Swinson simply saying “yes” when asked if she would press the nuclear button. The Scottish National Party, despite their welcome and consistent opposition to Trident, are very keen to declare their love of traditional Scottish army regiments.

In the last 10 to 20 years, everyday militarism has become firmly entrenched in Britain – from the introduction of Armed Forces Day, to an increase in school cadet forces, to arms companies sponsoring Pride marches, and producing ‘educational’ videos for small children.

One of the most alarming aspects of everyday militarism is how free debate and truth-telling are stifled by the militarist lobby. It’s about time that opposition politicians showed the public more respect than the Mail ever does and had the guts to take a stand against militarism.

Catching up: my recent articles

I have to admit that I’ve not done a great job of keeping my blog updated lately. But I have been writing lots!

I’ve written articles for various publications over the last few months. Some (but not all) of them are related to my part-time job as Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union. Looking at them now, I realise that there are quite a few that I have not posted here. I will be sure to do so in future!

Meanwhile, by way of a catch-up, here you go:

11 January 2021 (Tribune): The British government is covering up its role in Yemen

11 December 2020 (Left Foot Forward): Ignore the spin: the Hague’s ruling on British war crimes in Iraq is damning

23 October 2020 (Morning Star): A white poppy for Yemen and all the other forgotten wars

21 October 2020 (Left Foot Forward): This Remembrance Day, we must remember the victims of today’s wars too

23 September 2020 (Left Foot Forward): The Tories are trying to remove accountability for war crimes. What will Labour do?

3 September 2020 (Shiloh Project): Looking at men looking at women: Is Matthew 5,27-28 liberating or oppressive?

September 2020 (Reform magazine): Who’s afraid of the Beast? Time to take another look at the Book of Revelation

17 August 2020 (Left Foot Forward): Will the Labour First Minister in Wales allow training of Saudi pilots on Welsh land?

27 June (Morning Star): 10 reasons not to support Armed Forces Day

17 April (Morning Star): Why waste money on bombs and bullets when ventilators are what’s needed?

Imagine if we took mental health as seriously as the struggle against Covid

Happy World Mental Health Day! It’s a good day to remind ourselves of the need to take care of our own and each other’s mental health.

That’s much harder in a society in which economic and social systems are built on greed, personal accumulation and working for the sake of working. So it’s also a good day to campaign for better mental health services and, longer term, for an end to capitalism.

The Covid pandemic shows how much society can be changed, and how quickly, both by a major health problem and by the attempts to prevent, contain or treat it.

It is quite right that we make a major priority of addressing Covid 19. But I think it’s also important that we take other health problems very seriously too. Don’t get me wrong: I am not for a moment suggesting that Covid should be taken less seriously. I am suggesting that we should apply the same concern and commitment to addressing health problems more broadly.

Mental health services in the UK, perhaps particularly in England, are often under-funded, badly run, badly publicised and insufficiently connected with wider health and wellbeing services. This is not to criticise the many brilliant people working within them. But no amount of hard work by dedicated staff can make up for a lack of funding and political support in an overwhelmed public service.

This is all the more so because the very structures of British capitalist society add to mental health problems, with the constant pressure to conform, to consume, to be economically productive (often for the sake of someone else’s profits) at the same time as being a perfect partner, parent, relative or friend. The pandemic has fuelled certain types of mental health problems and the poverty resulting from the recession will fuel more.

When the lockdown was announced in March, mental health services should have received extra funding and support as part of the response to Covid. Instead, they became less of a priority and some who run them started to misuse the horror of the Covid pandemic as an excuse for lack of support from mental health services.

The Covid pandemic is pretty certainly bringing a mental health pandemic in its wake. The seeds of a mental health pandemic have been sown over years.

I don’t have easy answers for addressing this problem. I really do think that the prevalence of mental health problems cannot be seriously addressed within the current socio-economic system.

But on World Mental Health Day, let’s just imagine for a moment. Let’s just imagine that we viewed mental health as just as important as the vital struggle to tackle Covid 19.

Imagine if the government and media stressed the importance of taking time off work if you had poor mental health symptoms (without needing to “self-isolate”).

Imagine if bosses were criticised for not allowing workers with mental health problems to take time off work.

Imagine if workplaces were legally obliged to implement mental health and safety arrangements.

Imagine if shops, pubs, schools and universities were only allowed to open if they implemented measures to protect and promote the mental health of their customers and staff. Imagine if they faced being closed if they didn’t.

Imagine if the state paid the wages of people who couldn’t work because of mental ill-health, rather than trying to snatch away meagre benefits.

Imagine if people developing symptoms of mental health problems were more often met with support and offers of help rather than ignorance or contempt.

Imagine if the government published a daily or weekly count of the suicide rate, and of numbers of people diagnosed with mental health problems, because tackling these problems were regarded across society as a national priority.

Imagine if billions of pounds could be devoted overnight to mental health support, because it is such an urgent need.

Imagine if society encouraged mutual aid so that people could rely on each other when struggling with mental health problems.

Imagine if the headlines were full of debates about the best way to fund mental health services and improve mental health across society.

Imagine if workplaces, universities, faith groups and the arts all adapted quickly to include people who might otherwise be excluded for mental health reasons, with the speed with which home-working and Zoom meetings developed in the spring.

Imagine if we decided that mental health matters as much as physical health (which would still matter just as much). Imagine if we tackled the mental health crisis while also tackling the Covid crisis.

Imagine if we realised that we can’t meaningfully tackle either of them without restructuring society.

Prejudice, privilege and face masks

Just over two weeks ago, a 16-year-old was verbally abused on a train for seeking to communicate with her deaf sister.

Saule Pakenaite was travelling from Liverpool to Stockport with her sister Karolina on 16th July when she briefly lifted her face mask from her mouth so that Karolina could lip-read. She was then loudly denounced by another passenger, who refused to believe her explanation about Karolina’s deafness.

This vile incident has made the news partly because it was filmed. It’s horrifying to think how many similar incidents are going unrecorded, undiscussed and unnoticed by all except those affected by them.

It is sometimes said that crises bring out the best and the worst in people. The Covid 19 pandemic has seen many people demonstrating kindness and a sense of community, coming together to tackle common problems. As well as the judgemental woman who insulted the Pakenaite sisters on the train, let’s not forget the passenger who intervened and challenged her. But in England this solidarity and compassion has appeared despite, and not because of, the government’s patronising messages.

While many people on the ground have gone out of their way to help their neighbours, the government has paid only limited attention to people facing unemployment and poverty and has completely neglected the mental health services that should have been a priority for attention and funding as the UK went into lockdown and mental ill-health shot up.

Sadly, the crisis seems also to be seen by petty-minded and judgemental people as a licence to make assumptions about other people’s behaviour and to blame individuals and marginalised communities for a global problem exacerbated by economic unfairness and handled appallingly badly by Boris Johnson’s government.

Only yesterday, Tory MP Craig Whittaker abandoned any attempt to mask his racism and simply asserted that the “vast majority” of people not taking Covid 19 regulations seriously enough in his constituency were in BAME communities.

In a similar vein to the disabilism encountered by Saule and Karolina Pakenaite, social media commentators have mocked the exemption to compulsory face coverings for people who would experience “extreme distress” if their face were covered. These include people with PTSD and various other mental health problems. If, to take an example, you have a traumatic memory of someone trying to suffocate you, it is entirely reasonable that you should be exempt from wearing a mask that would trigger a panic attack.

On the other side of the coin from those who mock exemptions are those privileged people who mock the idea of wearing a mask when they have no grounds for exemption themselves. Certain Tory backbenchers object to masks on the grounds of a concern for civil liberties that they have never previously demonstrated. Most of these people are never seen speaking up about real threats to civil liberties, such as the rise in facial recognition technology, the massive amount of data gathered by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon or the government’s threat to restrict jury trials.

The right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens has somehow managed to combine the self-importance of the anti-makers with the contempt for disabled people shown by verbally abusive people on trains.

Hitchens claims that face masks turn people into “voiceless submissives” – but his rants on the subject fail even to mention the existence of exemptions. Hitchens has in reality been encouraging submission to capitalist authority for decades. On the one occasion when I met him, he said, with a straight face and apparent sincerity, that there is literally no poverty in Britain. He regularly attacks campaigning movements and trades unions that stand up to authority. The only right with which he seems concerned is the supposed right of privileged people not to wear something that might protect more vulnerable people from harm.

I am reminded of the people who objected in 2007 when the ban on smoking in pubs came in, complaining that it infringed their civil liberties. Such arguments completely miss the point of civil liberties, which are about equal freedom for all, not about allowing some people to make other people ill, or letting the privileged use their power to harm people less powerful than themselves.

There are people who are really frightened about going to a place where lots of people are not wearing masks. Other people are equally frightened of being judged and insulted by people who don’t recognise their legitimate exemptions.

There are two important principles that are surely pretty straightforward: wear a mask unless you’re exempt and don’t judge people who are exempt.

I know that most people are following both these principles: judgemental disabilists and entitled Tory toffs are thankfully a fairly small part of the population. Supporting and respecting each other really shouldn’t be this difficult.