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'Our legislative concerns are strangely skewed’

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A recent survey by me found that nobody – with the possible exception of Nick Clegg – can name three members of the Liberal Democrat Party. For those interested in research methodology, I asked eight people, three of whom were under 12 and two of whom had had a drink and were singing ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’.

Answers included: ‘Nigel Kennedy?’ ‘Lloyd George?’ And ‘Can you get off the High School Musical dance mat, Daddy, we’re playing’.

It probably isn’t easy being Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and perhaps he can be excused for trying to get attention now and then. However, it may make more sense for him to try going on X Factor or appearing in the House of Commons in a purple jumpsuit and velvet cape. Because when he talks about politics he doesn’t say much.

In a recent speech Mr Clegg, desperate to find a uniquely ‘Liberal’ angle on recession, predicted an epidemic of distress, in the midst of which people with a history of mental illness would be particularly prone to running up debt. He proposed that when well, such people should be able to organise what amounts to an advanced directive whereby any credit they ask for when unwell – or presumably hungry – be refused. This arrangement will only be available to mad people. The sane can borrow whatever they want.

Of course if Mr Clegg wants to talk about debt and mental ill health he could be making speeches about vocational training and social inclusion, but that might involve thinking about policies. Instead what he does is propose a thoroughly illiberal protectionism that makes little sense in terms of civil liberties, shows little understanding of mental illness and further stigmatises people with this diagnosis. He probably doesn’t do this on purpose. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t done.

I get a bit uncomfortable when we suggest changing the law for the alleged mad. And it struck me as ironic that a couple of days after Mr Clegg’s speech it was reported that across Britain there is a growing number of areas that ambulance crews cannot enter without a police escort because they will be attacked. Yet this appears to be a section of the community that does not attract policy proposals or much political attention. Why do we put so much energy into wondering what people considered ‘mad’ might do next but ignore the systematic violence of the healthy and violent? Ignore to the point of not even talking about how to address the behaviour.

We seem to have some strange priorities in who we lend our legislative concern to. And an imposing preoccupation with those who have had mental health problems.

Want to read more of Mark Radcliffe’s opinions? Just click on the more by this author link at the top of the page

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