My wife is a parasite. An unproductive drain on our national resources. A selfish and irresponsible extremist, holding the country to ransom.
My best friend is also a parasite. So are my sisters, and my closest colleague’s wife. And so are more than half of my employer’s clients.
All of these people are parasites, apparently, because they work in the public sector. Some of them (including my wife) were on strike on Wednesday, in a dispute about pension rights.
If we follow some of the commentary on Twitter and elsewhere, we are evidently supposed to understand this as a giant protection racket: “Nice country you’ve got there. Be a shame if something happened to it…” Demanding pensions with menaces, if you like.
Now, I don’t do politics on here (very much). You can take one side or the other on the question of pensions reform, or the size of the public sector; for the purposes of this post at least, I don’t care very much.
What I do care about is the casual way in which abusive terms are applied to a group of people, and how this distorts and displaces what should be a debate about serious economic and social issues.
About two million people were on strike on Wednesday. That’s about 10% of the working population of the UK, with many more directly or indirectly employed in the public sector who were not involved on the day.
In other words, these are your brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children and friends. If you know more than a couple of people, you know someone who works in the public sector.
The vast majority of these people work in jobs that are necessary. You can have a debate about whether public or private provision is best for any particular job (or for all jobs), but either way there are (by and large) going to be doctors, teachers, firemen and whatever else.
The people who do these jobs do not themselves decide whether the job they do is in the public or private sector. They do the job that they do because they have a vocation, or a valuable skill, or for the money, or for whatever other motivation people have to do any particular job.
Now, some public sector workers are members of unions. So are some private sector workers. This is intended as a counterbalance to the power of employers (whether public or private) over their employees.
That counterbalance works through collective bargaining, through advocacy, and (if other methods have not been successful) through the withholding of labour.
So sometimes, where an employer wishes to take action that a union (as the representative of its members) does not agree with, union members may be balloted on strike action. This is the case in both the public and private sectors; even barristers threaten to withhold their labour on occasion.
Yes, strikes are disruptive – that would rather be the point of striking. And, yes, they are often motivated by self-interest – that would be the same self-interest that we are all supposed to display as rational economic actors, and (if we are making student union debating points) the same self-interest that we display when we complain about disruption caused by strikes.
And, crucially, all of this is lawful. You are allowed to join a union, and, if you meet the criteria and go through the (more onerous than it once was) process, you are allowed to strike.
It is also democratic, in that there is a free choice of whether or not to join a union, and in the sense that unions articulate and advocate the collective view of their members. And, of course, in the sense that a strike is lawful only if members have voted for it.
If you don’t agree that this is appropriate, fine – it’s a valid point for debate. Lobby for a change in the law, and vote Conservative; it’s your right to do so.
But demeaning people (people that you know, almost certainly) as “parasites” for exercising their lawful rights is not a debate. Calling people selfish because they have a democratic means of expressing their view is not a debate.
So perhaps we could remember that we are talking about real people, doing real jobs, when we discuss the rights and wrongs of strikes, and the proper scope of the public sector. And perhaps we could afford these real people the respect that we would demand for ourselves were it our jobs and our interests at stake.
And if you’re not swayed, please feel free to come and call Mrs Bizzle a parasite to her face. She is from Wakefield, and will kick your ass.
Postscript: This blog is not about Jeremy Clarkson. In context, his “joke” was clearly about the BBC’s need for balance, and in any event he is not to be taken seriously.