YESTERDAY’S man George Osborne was back in the headlines this week as he announced he would continue working as an MP while editing the London Evening Standard. Being a politician isn’t so much his second job now as his third or fourth. Since standing down as Chancellor he’s raked in £650,000 working for BlackRock, a global hedge fund, and £750,000 from making speeches to global financiers. Rightly, people are aghast.
But every super villain has a nemesis: someone who is exactly opposed in every possible attribute. I believe I’ve met the nemesis of Osborne and everything he stands for. Her name is Cathy Milligan: she’s the heartbeat of Castlemilk Against Austerity and she’s standing for Glasgow Linn in the upcoming local elections. If you’re in her ward, if you’re pro-independence and if you want something done about cuts now, I urge you to consider lending her your vote.
Now 53 years old, Cathy has been politically active in Glasgow since the seventies, but she was driven to action after becoming a victim of Britain’s sadistic benefits system. “In 2009 I lost my job due to ill health and I had to claim Employment and Support Allowance,” she told me. “That really woke me up to how badly people on benefits are being treated. It’s horrible and, in my mind, nobody would willingly put themselves through this.
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“Life on benefits is full of misery and despair. At one point, I was left to live on £47 per week for ten months. I was too ill to fight it and it really pushed me to the edge. I felt scared, alone, worthless.”
The anti-bedroom tax campaign proved a turning point in Cathy’s path to this election. She was also inspired by the Yes campaign, having started out as a No voter. “At first I saw it as a red herring to distract us while the real politics were going on, like selling off the NHS, social care provision, the tearing apart of social security and so on.
“But the Radical Independence Campaign, Hope over Fear (its leaders aside) and all the young people I knew, especially my nephew, convinced me that it was indeed political and it was about undermining the unfair system, about taking back our politics for a fairer more equal place and giving people power to have a say on how things could be run.”
The referendum spawned Castlemilk Against Austerity, a genuinely inspiring and genuinely grassroots community organisation. From solidarity food drives to political meetings and fundraising gigs, they’ve worked tirelessly to highlight the violence that austerity inflicts on community life.
Importantly, for me, Cathy is not just an easily patronised stereotypical “community activist” who only thinks about the local level. She’s extremely politically thoughtful. In among all her graft, she educates people in language they understand about the systems of oppression that govern our society. “I think we have to talk about the source of all these problems, and that’s a system that exists only to make profit at the expense of human beings.”
I began by referring to Osborne, the figurehead for obscene austerity worldwide. Of course, I know the danger here. For all the scoundrels, easy hate figures and pantomime villains like Osborne, the real danger is that austerity goes on regardless of who’s in power.
The disgraced former Chancellor was notable for actively enjoying the process, seeming to revel in punishing the poor like a sadistic teacher administering six of the best. But such active badness is rare. Most cuts are banal, boring ... normal. They are implemented by people who feel they have little choice in the matter since they are simply following orders from above.
Only active resistance can stop this deeper, more dangerous and ultimately more evil routinisation of austerity. And the council elections in Scotland will bring this dilemma back into focus. Virtually every party will say they are anti-austerity, and even the Tories will disguise their cuts agenda by emblazoning themselves in the Union Jack and attacking the SNP.
But no matter who has power, the cuts keep happening. Last year Scottish councils lost 7,000 jobs, and 40,000 have been lost over five years.
Our public services haven’t fallen apart. That’s because our teachers, nurses and social workers do Hollywood work with an am-dram budget. But in the medium-term, this isn’t sustainable; in the long run it’s a coming disaster. Local services haven’t yet collapsed, but it’s coming. The job centre and tax office closures across Scotland are particularly outrageous examples of how austerity is beginning to eat itself.
Politicians are astute in the saying of gentle words. That’s their job. But we’re now past the stage of words: the Osbornes of the world have departed, and nobody is actively arguing for cuts anymore. They don’t need to: cutting and cutting again each year is now routine behaviour for anyone in a managerial position. That’s why soothing words aren’t enough. We need deeds.
We need people who embody the spirit of Cathy’s favourite quote from Angela Davis: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change – I’m changing the things I cannot accept”.
For me, Cathy is that spirit. She lives to right wrongs and she lives to be the change she wants to see. If you’re lucky enough to have Cathy, or someone like her, to vote for, think before you enter that polling booth. You can make a party-political choice; you can elect a talker of gentle words; you can acknowledge necessary evils and accept the things you cannot change. Or you can find the courage to say: “enough excuses!” You can vote for somebody with a powerful voice whose deeds already make a difference to the community.
“Don’t sit back and let somebody else do it,” is Cathy’s final message. “Every community should make a stand against austerity. Find your voice, because we need you.” Politicians fear the power of a good example. Let’s allow Cathy to set one.