Fool Britannia

DayBritainChangedApril1

I’m alright, Jack. Most of the tax and welfare cuts in what today’s Guardian calls “a new social order” do not directly affect me. Hooray! The “bedroom tax”, introduced today, robs 14% of housing benefit from those in social housing with one spare room, and 25% for two or more spare rooms. Not me. Nor am I among the two-thirds of those hit by the tax who are disabled. I am not affected by the lowering of the household income cut-off for eligibility for Legal Aid. I do not claim Council Tax benefit, so will not be affected by the system that administers it being transferred from the Government to the already financially strapped local councils.

Not being disabled, I am not affected by the disability living allowance being scrapped next Monday, and nor will it affect me that written applications for the benefit are replaced by face-to-face interviews. As I am not currently receiving benefits, or tax credits, I will not notice when, next Monday, they do not rise in line with inflation for the first time in history. Nor do I live in the London boroughs that, from 15 April, will cap welfare benefit. (The other boroughs will follow in July and September, by which time I do not expect to be a welfare claimant, but you never know in this economy, do you?)

The changes to the regulation of the financial industry do not affect me directly today. Nor does today’s unpopular handing over of NHS budgets to “local commissioning groups” made up of doctors, nurses and other practitioners affect me directly today.

So, it would be easy for me to be smug – my life goes on as normal. But I’m not smug. I’m f—ing furious, and deeply worried. These latest changes, particularly to benefits, and much more broadly to the NHS, are on the face of it designed by the nasty ideologues in the Conservative government (I think we should stop calling it a Coalition) to save money. Simple as that. The “under-occupancy penalty” (the Bedroom Tax), which some are optimistically and wishfully calling this government’s Poll Tax, will – we’re told – save £465m a year. Even if this is true – and I tend to disbelieve anything that comes out of George Osbourne’s mouth – that doesn’t count the cost. The cost to lives, to dignity, to pride, to social cohesion, and, if I may be airy-fairy for a moment, to the general mood of the nation.

Attacks on benefit claimants, the poor, the out of work, the disabled, the sick, are easy to tot up as net gains. But – and here’s where every single one of these cuts affects us all, even people who live in gated communities and have second homes in the country – I don’t personally want to live in a society where the worst-off are treated with corner-cutting contempt. This is the seventh richest nation in the world. In the world. And yet a report commissioned by the TUC predicted that by 2015, almost 7.1m of the nation’s 13m youngsters will be in “homes with incomes judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living”. This report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about poverty makes depressing reading, too.

The National Housing Federation – the independent body representing 1,200 English housing associations – calculates that the Bedroom Tax risks pushing up the £23bn annual housing benefit bill. Its chief executive said the tax would “harm the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.” (It will hit 660,000 households with each losing an estimated average of £14 a week. And if you think that £14 isn’t much, then you have no empathy, or have lived a charmed life. Hey, maybe you’re among the cherished 310,000 who will gain today because of the scrapping of the 50p tax rate.)

There are simple social equations here. Either you believe in society or you do not. Either you link the experience of the poor to the experience of everybody else, or you do not. If you do not live in one of the 3.7 million low-income households whose council tax benefit is cut as of today, then you do indeed seem to be alright, Jack. And if you can step back from the bigger picture – from “breadline Britain” as it’s been branded – and still not care, as it doesn’t affect you directly, then you are a better person than I am. I don’t want to live in a country where new food banks are being opened every week. Caroline Spelman, when she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described food banks as an “excellent example” of active citizenship. I describe them as a crying shame.

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The amazing Trussell Trust, the charity which runs the UK’s main food bank network, now have 325 running across Britain. They say that in 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide; n 2012-13 they anticipate that this number will rise to over 290,000. God bless them. But their good works should not be necessary. Charity should be a safety net, not part of our social infrastructure.

So, take a look around you, at your immediate circumstances, on this most unfunny of April Fools Days. If, like me, you are unaffected, directly, today, by the latest cuts, then slap yourself on the back, and hope that you are not affected by them, directly, tomorrow, or the next day.

Then walk out of your front door, and look down your street; look at the streets you walk past tomorrow on your way to work, if you have a job, and wonder about the people who live in the houses you pass. Are they affected, directly? Some of them will be. Even more of them will be affected indirectly. We are all affected indirectly, right now.

This government is run by people who do not think about or care about how other people are getting on. They truly believe, as if it were a religious creed, that if you fall by the wayside, it’s your own, lazy fault. If you’re not an “entrepreneur”, if you don’t do three jobs, if you haven’t saved, then you’re a shirker, or a sponger, or a waste of space. If you agree with this creed, sleep well. If you don’t, then you’re alright by me, Jack.

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15 thoughts on “Fool Britannia

  1. Bloody well said. I’ve just posted this all over Facebook and Twitter. Wholly agree and I don’t think we’re directly affected by it at the moment, either, unless we need to be ill in the near future …

  2. A couple of questions for you Andrew. You said “Either you believe in society or you do not.” – what would you think of withdrawing all benefits from people who earn an ASBO, or commit a crime against society (rather than against another individual or group)? If people should support society when they don’t derive immediate benefit from it, should the reverse be true do you think?

    You also said “Charity should be a safety net, not part of our social infrastructure.” Assuming that the social infrastructure should provide food, warmth and shelter to anyone in need (or the means to obtain them), in addition to the education, health care and numerous other benefits we all enjoy, what is it you think charity should be providing?

    • I said what I meant about society: you either think the collective experience should be protected, or you believe that we are simply individuals and the cumulative good is irrelevant. What is a “crime against society”? A crime against an individual or group is also a crime against society, so I’m not sure how to answer that. If you commit a crime, you need to be punished in some way. Whether that’s custodial or community service or a fine depends on the nature and severity of the crime. The punishment should be enough. If I do not use the health service in the course of a year, I am happy to have paid for it with my taxes through that year: society is all about putting something in and taking something out when you need it. I’m not sure what you’re asking? It all sounds a bit hypothetical.

      In a perfect society, there would be no need for charity. But it’s not a perfect society, so clearly the efforts of charities and the impact of donations are needed. The charity of which I am a patron, Thomas’s Fund, offers music therapy to kids with life-limiting illnesses. You might argue that this is not a vital service, but it helps those that benefit from it. Should it be funded through the NHS? If I were in charge: yes. But for now, it’s funded by donations from kind-hearted, compassionate people. So charity can enhance the experience of those less fortunate than ourselves. Again, I’m not sure what you’re asking me. I’m not in charge, you should probably remember that!

      • Don’t worry, this isn’t an attack, I’m just curious to understand your reasoning 🙂

        I don’t think a crime against society is necessarily a crime against an individual, or vice versa. For example, if a minor buys alcohol that’s a crime against society, because no individual (probably not even the minor) has been harmed. Similarly if you punch me that’s a crime against the individual, but not against society (the world is not a better or worse place because you punched me).

        So if I’m a persistent, large-scale litterer I’m not really committing a crime against any individual (though many might be offended by it), but I’m flouting societal standards and hence committing a crime against society. I do this so often, and with such indifference, that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that I don’t believe in society. At that point would you advocate taking away my societal benefits? Do I forfeit my right to NHS care, or unemployment insurance, or housing benefit? And if not, if my indifference to society shouldn’t affect my right to receive its benefits, how is that different from the rich whose ‘offence’ is not wanting to pay for those benefits? Does that mean that you disapprove of their decision to avoid paying, but ultimately it’s fine?

        On the charity thing it sounds like we think the same, but I don’t think that qualifies charity as a ‘safety net’. Basically if it’s something you need but can’t afford the State should supply it, and presumably a ‘safety net’ is something you need. In contrast charity is there to do the things that are good to have, but probably not essential. For example, the charity I most commonly support provides bikes for children with or recovering from cancer. They make a real difference to most children’s physical recovery, and help boost their confidence/independence, but I’d struggle to say the NHS isn’t doing its job by not providing them.

        (Sorry for the delayed response – turns out I hadn’t turned on notifications).

        • Similarly if you punch me that’s a crime against the individual, but not against society (the world is not a better or worse place because you punched me).

          People punching other people is bad for society. Beyond that, I’m not sure what your argument is. I would not forfeit your right to NHS care if you dropped litter, no. (Although, again, remember: I’m not in charge.) Those people I accuse of not caring about society are the Tory politicians who are dismantling the welfare state. I thought that was clear.

          Your paragraph about charity is just a nit-picky argument over semantics. It’s a blog. I aim to convey my feelings, but nobody’s sub-editing it!

          I’m not sure we’re at odds, anyway. I despise the Tory government as much as they despise the poor.

  3. The day Britain changed was 6 May, 2010. Almost three years later and some of the papers are just starting to get a sense that something’s going on. Of all the things that have happened this is perhaps the most depressing of all, because everything else was so soul-crushingly predictable. And so easily avoided.

  4. Thanks for writing this Andrew, it needs saying but by many more people, whether affected by the cuts (should I insert an ‘n’ in there?) or not. I am fucking furious too and I know many people who are going to be worse off than me.
    £5 pounds a week to pay for my Council Tax. Well, that’s only one, maybe two meals I’ll have to skip. Who needs heating in their tiny 1 room flat anyway? Not me I guess!
    What the hell are we supposed to do now?

  5. These are the exact emotions I feel every time I watch my home country talk about decreasing access to medicare/medicaid, welfare benefits, and doing whatever they can to ignore the problems by those less fortunate than the politicians running it.

  6. What a fabulous piece of writing. The sense of barely contained rage is beautifully evoked. And, as one who has taken you to task in the past for casual profanity, saying it should be reserved for instances when its genuine power to shock is needed… THIS is how to do it 🙂

  7. I think you hit upon something towards the end of the article when you asked people to consider the streets they “walk” on their way to work. Of course, in the UK today, most people do not walk to work – they don’t walk anywhere. They drive from their suburban or village homes, or even their gated communities, through the inner cities, directly to work or directly to the shopping mall or retail park. From inside a metal box, it’s a lot easier to turn a blind eye – to compartmentalise your life and speed through the bits you don’t like. Walking the streets of a city, you are part of that city and can’t help but empathise. A healthy society is one where rich and poor share the same spaces – our car culture ensures they don’t.

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