‘Genuine respect for the law is the result of possessing something which the law exerts itself to guard.’ George Gissing, The nether world (1889).
This is a rum old business, this news about criminalising squatters. When I was a kid I used to pass a squatted block of flats in Harrow, the outer wall painted in large letters - 'Your logic is a dog. And so am I.'
To try to be fair to the government: on the day the widely-decried regulation to criminalise squatters was publicised, they published sensible looking guidelines to help local authorities deal with 'rogue' landlords. Most of us wouldn’t have noticed.
The determination of the Haves to hound, punish and brutalise people in poverty seems to be taking on its own momentum, albeit with familiar rhetoric. Here, in the Ministry of Justice press release, are some of the words of the housing minister:
'For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.’
(I know, I know, the heart bleeds, sometimes some of them can’t decide which home to sleep in, it must be awful having to make your mind up).
But what is the word ‘hardworking’ doing in that sentence? How does the minister know that all those people who, for instance, have more housing than they need, and seek to make profit from it, are ‘hardworking’? It doesn’t follow. Could he possibly be using the term in order to establish some kind of moral distance, as part of the nasty rhetoric of marginalising the unemployed and the poor?
What struck me about the media coverage yesterday was that the government appeared to be more interested in publicising its bullying approach to the crime of squatting, so that people who have lots of property will feel there is justice for them (to go with the legislation they already have) than they were in offering a progressive approach to addressing problems associated with homelessness. Nothing, not a word, about bringing abandoned properties back into use, so that fewer people are forced onto the streets.
Whether or not there is a satisfactory strategy on homelessness, the driving assumption is that ‘the public’ want to hear that people who experience exclusion are being dealt with ‘firmly’, and never mind the consequences. That’s scary. It feeds into the accumulating mood of povertyism, which I described here as ‘straightforward nasty prejudice against a large class of people who, by inconsiderately not having much stuff, manage to make others uncomfortable about their own greed.’