I’ve spent the past four years on the defensive against accusations that as a Brexiter, I am aligning myself with some of the worst people and opinions in society. And mostly I’ve just batted the accusations away as complete nonsense, pointing out that Brexiters, like Remainers, are not a homogenous group with a single mind-set, that we all have our own reasons for voting the way we did. And I have rarely felt the need to specifically denounce anything said or written by other Brexiters – I’ve always found it easier to simply comment on, or write about, the issues that are important to me and to ignore those that are not.
But Giles Fraser’s recent article, “Why won’t Remainers talk about family?”,struck me as so mean-spirited, so backward, and has caused such a storm on social media, that I find myself, as a Brexiter, appalled at the notion that anyone would think I share his views.
Fraser begins his article with an anecdote about a woman in her fifties, who called up her local GP surgery to say that her father had soiled himself and to ask if they could send someone round to clean him up. The doctor asked if the woman had had children. “Yes”, she replied. “When they were babies, did you ever contact the state to ask if it would come round to change their nappies?” the doctor responded. “Ouch. What a question”, Fraser remarks, struggling to hide his glee at this presumptious woman being so firmly put in her place.
He then goes on to launch an attack on George Osborne and the Evening Standard, for their “Remain-inspired end-of-the-world fear-mongering” headline which asked ““Who’ll look after our elderly post Brexit?”
And then he announces that he’s longing for “a full-on Brexit – No Deal, please – to come along and smash the living daylights out of the assumptions behind that question.”
The remainder of the article can be summarised thus: It is the duty of children – not the state – to look after their parents. In order to be able to carry out that duty, children should live close to home. Free movement and social mobility both take children away from the family home, away from the communities in which they grew up, and destroy not just family life but entire community spirit. And we should all seek to emulate the way of life of our Muslim communities, whose conservative, traditional, family-centric way of life provide “the most effective form of social security the world has even known: family and community life.”
The thing is, much of Fraser’s argument is perfectly legitimate, and there are many who will agree with him. It is true that freedom of movement and social mobility are a mixed blessing – no previous generation has found it quite so easy to work, travel and set up homes all over the world, yet the downside is that in too many cases, elderly people are finding themselves cut off from their adult children, living in communities which are slowly turning to ghost towns. So yes, there is certainly a debate to be had about how to redress the balance – but that requires a far wider debate, about the reasons so many young people find themselves forced to move away from home in order to find decent work. Let’s talk about how we can develop local communities to try to increase opportunities for the young, so that fewer of them feel the need to move away from home. Yes, of course there will still be many who wish to fly the nest, to seek out opportunities far and wide – but rather than Fraser’s seeming desire to forcibly clip their wings, why not look at opportunities to attract them back home once they have satisfied their need for exploration?
But let’s return to the woman who called up the GP surgery. The reality of the situation is that she has probably been caring for her elderly father for a number of years already, probably struggling to meet his needs – but this is the first time that he has soiled himself. And yes, while it’s ridiculous to expect – or even ask – a GP surgery to send someone round to clean him up, I can’t help interpreting that phone call as a desperate cry for help, an instinctive response to finding oneself in a situation one simply cannot handle.
The fact that the GP suggested changing an adult man is in any way comparable to changing a baby, is quite frankly staggering. Try flipping an adult man onto his back, holding both his ankles together with one hand while wiping his bottom with the other, as you would with a baby. For that matter, try even getting him out of the chair he’s probably sitting in, and out of the clothes he’s wearing. I recall visiting my uncle in a nursing home a few months after he’d had a stroke. He was sitting in a chair, which he had been put in by the nursing staff. After a few minutes he announced that he needed to go to the toilet and so we pressed the buzzer for the staff to come and assist him. But after a few minutes nobody had yet arrived and my uncle was getting quite agitated, so I suggested maybe I could help him to the toilet, if he didn’t mind. He agreed, and I put my arms under his shoulders to try to lift him out of the chair. He had lost a great deal of weight in the months since his stroke, and I foolishly expected he would be easy to lift.
Well, he wasn’t. Much though his brain was telling him he was lifting his bum off the chair, his body was not co-operating at all. He was a dead weight and I simply couldn’t lift him. I went out into the hallway, hunted for one of the care workers, and she wheeled in the mechanical hoist and asked us to leave the room while she hoisted him to the toilet and back.
Now, I don’t know what kind of condition the woman’s father was in – he may have been more physically capable than my uncle was – but if he was soiling himself then the chances are he was not capable of getting to and from the toilet unassisted. Rather than asking if the woman had had children, the GP might have asked if the woman had a brother or a husband – and if so, where was he and could he be called on to assist? But Fraser, of course, doesn’t ask this question – he simply announces, “it is the daughter who should be wiping her father’s bottom”. And he wonders why his article has attracted such outrage from almost every woman who’s read it. It is the complete and utter failure to even ask where the men are in this scenario, with the attendant assumption that looking after the elderly, like changing nappies, is women’s work, that has attracted such ire. And the failure to acknowledge that in Muslim communities, it is generally the women, not the men, who are left to care for the elderly – that Muslim women, in many cases, are strongly discouraged from going out to work, or in some cases even from getting an education, as their role as child-rearer and caregiver is seen as more important than any other ambitions they may have.
And finally, Fraser makes no attempt to address the elephant in the room – the fact that advances in medical technology have meant that while increasing numbers of people are living longer than ever before, there has also been a large increase in the number of people living for years in a state of serious disability. My aunt, who has advanced Parkinsons and dementia, has spent the past three years in nursing homes as her physical capabilities have continued to diminish and her needs for round-the-clock care have increased. For the past year, she has been unable to speak, struggles to swallow, is wasting away to nothing and yet somehow, continues to exist. I use the word ‘exist’ deliberately – she has no quality of life and the only emotion she ever shows is distress.
If Fraser wishes to turn back the clock to a time when families looked after their elderly, he needs to acknowledge that that time ended when people stopped dropping dead suddenly in their sixties and seventies, and instead started living long enough to waste away slowly from degenerative age-related illnesses. When he writes that care homes are “warehouses for those who cannot be persuaded to make the trips to Dignitas” I cannot help but assume he has never watched a loved one waste away slowly, painfully and with an increasing loss of dignity. I, for one, will need no persuading – having seen what has happened to my aunt, if I am ever diagnosed with Parkinsons or any other degenerative disease I will be voluntarily making the trip to Dignitas long before I reach the stage of not being able to do so. Questions about who is responsible for caring for the elderly, simply cannot be separated from questions about dignity in dying.
The one good thing Fraser’s article has done, though, is to ignite the debate. So yes, let’s talk about family. And about care for the elderly. And about how to increase social mobility without decimating local communities. And dignity in dying. We need to talk about all of these things, and we need to do it as a nation – not as Brexiters and Remainers, but as sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, men and women.