Opinion: Social work ought to be honouring its own

Perhaps it is because I am nearly three score and 10. I keep reading obituaries. Not those of the kind of people in Who’s Who – it’s almost unknown people who inspire me. Here are two examples.

Catherine Aitken was a doctor who would work only for the NHS. Not only was she a wonderful doctor but she never abandoned her grassroots protests and marched on anti-nuclear demonstrations. In an era when New Labour is privatising parts of the health service and is about to spend billions on new nuclear weapons, I long for more people like Catherine.

Jeremy Best stayed as a youth worker on the same estate in Bristol from 1978 until his recent death. Putting the interests of users before promotion and material gain is a practice needed today.

There are staff in social work like these. They are usually the quiet people of welfare and so their example and values are not broadcast. Social work needs a way of honouring its own.

I do not mean the honours system. Last month, I was in a dilemma when asked to support the nomination of a friend. She has made an enormous contribution to welfare but I detest the bestowal of titles and gongs. I can best explain my position through those who have declined them.

George Lansbury, as a Labour Party leader, was entitled to a peerage. He was an egalitarian, and would take no privilege, even first-class travel, that socially separated him from his working-class friends.

Richard Tawney, the author of Equality, angrily refused honours and dismissed as “poodles” those who accepted them. Those who seek honours will soften their criticisms of the powerful.

Margaret Simey, the long-time activist in Liverpool, was not pleased when her husband became a peer and refused ever to be addressed as “Lady”.

The poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, would not take an OBE from a government which invaded Iraq. He also wrote that gongs boosted the egos of the recipients and allowed the establishment to draw previous radicals into its ranks.

Honours should not be about the toffs awarding sops to those eager for decorations. They should be about affirming the worth of colleagues. Social workers and social care staff can do this by writing about their fellow workers. I hope Community Care will continue to encourage readers to portray the achievements, values and skills of those who have effectively contributed to the social services – and to do so before they become due for an obituary.

The object is to show collective appreciation of workers who have put principles into practice and to enable the rest of us to learn from them.

There is more. Honouring by users. In Community Care’s “If you ask me…” column, users often name social care and social workers as the people who have most influenced them. I have just returned from a camp whose outstanding leader had coped with the death of his wife, illness and redundancy but was always there for 25 consecutive years. This year his retirement was announced. Seventy young people spontaneously stood on the benches and clapped to show their feelings.

In Easterhouse, our project staff gave time to a boy in difficult circumstances. When he went into care, they continued to transport him to clubs and holidays. Aged 30, he phoned up out of the blue. He was in work, had a partner and children. He said: “I just wanted to thank the project for all it did for me.” Many other welfare workers will have received the same kind of honouring.

The establishment honours system promotes superiority and social division. The system in social work should lead to mutuality and unity.

What about my dilemma? Compromise. I wrote in support of my friend’s nomination but also expressed my opposition to the system.

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow

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