Joanna Frew reflects on some of the common themes of three more of Rethinking Security’s roundtable discussions with civil society on human security issues. Discussions on themes as diverse as poverty, democracy and foreign policy threw up some common issues of an establishment insulated from much of the day-to-day insecurity and structures of exclusion that marginalise, if not abandon, millions of people in the UK.
In 2018, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights said that, as a result of the “drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets,” the “social safety net [in the UK] has been badly damaged.” One fifth of the population, including close to 40% of children, were living (and continue to live) in poverty, despite the UK being the fifth largest economy in the world.
Much has been written about these shocking statistics since and led to campaigns, such as that for free school meals, which forced the Conservative government under Boris Johnson into one of its most famous U-turns to stop children going hungry during the first Covid-lockdown. We read ever more about the increasing uptake of the services of food banks and pantries that led Iceland’s MD to say the supermarket was losing customers to food banks. However, the current shocking levels of poverty – that 22% of the total UK population live in relative poverty – have made a limited impression on our politicians. Despite offering some rebates in 2022 for the escalating cost of living crisis, the government has yet to make any serious attempts to address the economic insecurity faced by millions in the UK.
Abandonment: poverty, disability and economic insecurity
In a recent Alternative Security Review roundtable discussion, ‘Economic Security: Work, Benefits and Poverty’, discussants explored some of the issues that create economic insecurity. The participants – some experts by experience, some trade unionists and campaigners – all agreed that there had been a deliberate strategy since 1997 to disrupt the idea of ‘social security’ as something for which the government is responsible. Words like ‘benefit’ and ‘credit’ reflect this shift to deliberately create insecurity to (the theory goes) incentivise work, whether it is secure or not. Temporary or ‘zero hour’ contracts are the most glaring current examples.
This was the same conclusion reached by Philip Alston: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.” This ethos has also brought unprecedented insecurity for those with disabilities as they face the same harsh regime that prioritises incentivising work rather than providing necessary security when work is not possible. Reflections on the ASR roundtable on the economic insecurities faced by many were highlighted in an earlier blog by Christopher Burns, campaigner with the APLE Collective.
The exclusivity of policymaking
One of the reasons that economic insecurity has been allowed to develop is that people who experience economic insecurity are not involved in the formulation of government policies.
However, it is not just people in poverty who are not invited to bring different perspectives. In another roundtable, ‘Diversity and Inclusion in Foreign Policy’, the group agreed that if you do not tick all the boxes on the unwritten check list (i.e. education in a public school, male, white, some connection with the military) you are unlikely to be taken seriously within the foreign and security policy circles in Westminster. It is a sad reflection on the exclusivity of policy-making that this has been the reality for those from minoritised backgrounds.
Indeed, in another roundtable, ‘Democracy and Political Inclusion’, it was said that finding ways for people on the margins to be heard in policy spaces is harder in Westminster, compared with devolved governments or the EU. These three discussions painted a picture of a political elitism in Westminster that is deaf to alternative approaches to security – either foreign or domestic issues of human security – and actively excludes all but a narrow demographic from ‘consultation’ processes.
UK political culture feeds political insecurity
The strength and health of our democracy was explored in that same roundtable on Democracy and Political Inclusion. We are used to reading about the UN monitoring elections in other countries where there is a risk of corruption and violence as citizens head to the polls, but as one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the modern world, this is not the experience in the UK.
And, yet, although the UK ranks 18th overall in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index for 2021, its individual score for political culture is lower than the rest of the top 30 countries. Does this in fact harm political security in the UK? Does it affect individuals’ and communities’ abilities to participate fully and experience inclusion in the big decisions of their society?
Positively, there are many ways in which the UK’s political system, as it is structured, allows for participation and for dealing with the concerns of citizens. For example, the opportunity to vote freely, local authority consultations, and the accessibility of MPs. However, the participants (all experts from the democracy sector), identified several ways in which barriers to participation operate in the UK. These were categorised as formal, informal and systemic.
Given all that was said in the other two roundtables summarised here, it may not come as surprise that the systemic issues identified were mostly to do with class and the elite political culture. For instance, it was agreed that the opportunity to participate fully in politics is often about which schools include some form of political education, how early someone understands that their MP can take action on their concerns, or even the confidence to speak in public.
The centralisation of power was also identified as a problem that harms communities’ political engagement. Rather than MPs being members of the communities they represent, they are put forward for election through centralised party apparatus. This is removing power from working class communities and in to middle class power structures.
Moreover, this centralisation of power robs many on the margins of hope that anything will change. There is little sense of the ability to exert agency, especially if the closest arms of the government are the Job Centre or the Universal Credit phone line, employees of which exercise control over someone’s ability to eat well or afford phone credit.
Representation was also identified as a key issue when it comes to identity. If you don’t see people of your own background or community – e.g. class, ethnicity, religion, age, gender – represented, how much harder might that make engagement? Those in the workshop on foreign policy, as noted above, experienced a lack of trust, silence, or even patronising behaviour towards them. Ultimately, they felt ignored and not treated with the same validity because of their colour and gender.
Informal issues in the Democracy roundtable covered the use of social media, which was said to both help and hinder participation. It has been an effective tool to increase awareness and participation in local issues especially, but can also be used by bad faith actors and lead to online hate, particularly towards minoritised groups.
Sadly, several new, formal barriers to participation were identified. Changes to the electoral commission and the mandating of voter ID (regarded by the group as amounting to voter suppression) introduced in the 2022 Elections Act, were thought unnecessary in the UK. Coupled with the new Policing Act, the group were unanimous that these acts and the current political culture, puts the UK on a path towards authoritarianism.
Elitism and human insecurity in the UK
Taken together, this rolling back of some democratic freedoms in the UK, combined with deepening economic insecurity and an elitist class structure in which power is centralised, robs people of agency. The level of fear that many live with regarding their economic security was identified as a further factor in depriving people of agency and hope.
However, the groups agreed that coming together in communities to tackle issues can bring a sense of strength and hope that can overcome insecurity. The way the UK democracy can function can be very empowering and MPs and councillors will often engage with and respond to concerns. Examples included the legal and direct actions to stop the first deportation flight to Rwanda and the rail strikes.
Yet, the elitism and inequality experienced by participants in these most recent roundtable discussions, highlights how our economic, political and community security cannot be taken for granted. As Rethinking Security’s original discussion paper said, the practice of developing and maintaining human security is an ongoing, shared endeavour that requires patient practice.
The UN’s recent, reconceptualised human security agenda ‘Agenda 2030 aims to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.” It seems that despite the UK’s status as one of the leading economies and oldest modern democracies, for those outside the establishment, we have a long way to go to achieve human security for all.