Call it what it is: poverty…

Imagine this; having real power.

Imagine being in charge of a whole economy, a whole country, with a mandate to make progressive change in order to solve problems.

Where do you start? At the top, or at the bottom?

What are your priorities?

What guiding principles should underly and inspire?

What new ideas and understandings should be weaponised in the form of actual policy?

Some of my friends will instantly think of the great new dawn of an independant Scotland, and what might be achieved when given the chance to finally do it for ourseves – after all, it seems possible that Nicola Sturgeon will be in exactly this position soon.

Arguably, the energy of the independence movement is driven by a sectarian world view in which one side is good and the other side bad and all problems/issues are seen through this narrow window. This is great for stirring up supporter passion, but it does not necessarily make for good government – consider the role nationalism has played in world history. That is not to say that great good can not emerge from nationalist movements, but it must serve as a warning as we consider the motivations that drive us.

As Bob Dylan once put it (words that seem tailor-made for Trump);

They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings. Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and then they make you king.’

I hope Sturgeon can chart a path through this minefield, for all our sakes. If so, she will have to develop an agenda beyond the reductive and seductive logic of ‘in/out’ and guide her movement beyond sectarian identity politics towards the messy buysiness of government policy. Even before this, her new government will need a different set of principles and guiding ideas to unite around because ‘Scottishness’ is a bubble that may burst on the sharp points of any number of thorny problems, and then all of the questions I asked at the start of this piece will come in to sharp relief.

(I am going to put a note in here for friends who are passionate supporters of Scottish independence. I suspect already you will be feeling defensive, but hold your fire for a moment. )

Biden too now has his majority in both houses and after the madness of Trump, he now has both the opportunity and the responsibility to deliver on behalf of the (perhaps too) broad alliance of Democrat supporters.

Great catoclysmic events, as well as bringing disaster and destruction, often also give opportunity. Think of the new social contract that was formed in postwar UK, and outlined in the magnificent Beveridge Report, which outlined in clear terms the five ‘Giant evils’ that had to be slain in order to rebuild a Britain shattered by war. I was reminded of these by this article by Aditya Chakrabortty.

Consider the list that the report proposed;

  1. Want. The fact that significant proportions of the country did not have enough. A bit like today, when one in 5 Britains do not have enough money to live on. 14 million people. Back in 1942, who could have imagined we would be back here again in 2021?
  2. Disease. Fair and equal access to health care was part of this, but so was a concern that the impact of ill health should not be determined by wealth and social class. As revealed by the Pandemic.
  3. Ignorance. Access to fair and equal education was a huge concern in post war Britain because it was seen as a form of social engineering, in which poor people could finally realise their true potential. We measured this success by looking at class-based outcomes in the education system and strived to alter our education system accordingly. We don’t do this any more. We focus on individual school performance, because it is easier to find individual failures than collective ones.
  4. Squalor. This was about housing. Building housing stock that gave people dignity, a sense of community belonging and in which people were not subject to the whims of slum landlords. A massive social house building programme was followed by both Tory and Labour governments. Consider our current situation. Shelter, the homelessness charity call it a ‘housing emergency’. Money that should be spent on new social housing is in fact being spent buying private emergency homelessness accommodation. This means then that despite the efforts to bring street sleepers ‘inside’ during the pandemic are doing nothing to solve the real problem.
  5. Idleness. Beveridge believed in the redemptive social good of meaningful labour. Work builds communities, instills pride and wellbeing. Work was essentially a contract between employers and employees, one of mutual benefit. Maintaining a fair balance between the two was the business of government and of a unionised, empowered labour force. Whilst the world of economic growthism that predicated this social contract might have brought environmental disaster, it is still worth asking where we are up to with fighting this ‘great evil’. Do we still see work as meaningful? Is the social contract between employers and employees still being valued in the same way? In an age of zero hour contracts and widening gap between the pay of workers and managers?

But this is looking back, at old ideas – which is of course an important lesson, but my original question was what would you do NOW?

What are your priorities?

The guiding rhetoric of the last thirty-plus years has directed the attention of policy makers towards the top, not the bottom, of society. The job of government, or so we were told, was to get out of the way of the wealth creators. In this way, innovation and the white heat of free market entrepenurialism will create prosperity for all. Thatcherism was the hinge, but this was only softened by Blair, and has largely become a ‘common sense’ hegemony across the whole western world.

Any government seeking to set an agenda will begin in this place, because this is guiding narrative of our age. Success, we are told, is about individuals being set free to succeed according to their own skills, hard work and abilities.

The poor are inconvenient to this narrative. As Chakrabortty puts it in his article;

How ingenious are the British! Like the legendary Inuit people who coined 57 words for snow, we have devised a long list of clever aliases for the stuff that dominates everyday life. Know the ones I mean? Try food poverty. Fuel poverty. Child poverty. Clothing poverty. Transport poverty. Period poverty.

These are phrases mouthed in Westminster and plastered across newspapers (which, this week, are discussing “digital poverty”). They help shape the UK in the 21st century. But this ever-growing jungle of subcategories obscures the one true problem they have in common. It is poverty: the condition of not having enough money to live your life.

If your only choice of an evening is between skipping dinner or going to sleep in the cold before waking up in the cold, then you are not carefully selecting between food poverty and fuel poverty, like some expense-account diner havering over the French reds on a wine list. You are simply impoverished.

If you are using a sock as a sanitary towel, the problem lies not in the time of the month but in your lack of income – which doubtless means you’re also not getting enough food or heating. Gas bills might jump or petrol prices soar, but if those things tip you into all-out crisis, that’s because you were already poor.

Poverty cannot be shelved tidily under different classifications, like books in a library. It jabs its tentacles into all parts of your life, distorting and defining everything from how you feel about yourself to whether you live or die in this pandemic.

Back to that question about priorities and ideas…

My contention to anyone who is seeking to make a new start, post pandemic is that we have to start talking about poverty again, both as a national and an international phenomenon.

We have to stop congratulating ourselves for our face-saving sticking plasters, and get to grip with the structural casues of poverty. This is not just for the sake of the poor, but also for our own sakes, and for the sake of the environment because nfettered wealth creation is a sickness on us all and on the planet.

How do we start this?

Perhaps by starting to measure it again rather than hide it behind a mesmerising list of sub categories.

Perhaps by confronting the language of anti-poverty. Those who will tell you (without ever having been close to it) that there is ‘no such thing as poverty’ in the UK. We have to confront those who play the blame-and-divide game, telling us that poverty is about individual choices, rather than arising from multi-factoral complex interactions between psychology, opportunity, and the brutalising effects of deprivation on all levels.

Certainly by reminding ourselves that poverty in about money, or rather the lack of it. Quite simply, if you are worried about how you will pay for basics – accepting that what is ‘basic’ in the UK might be different from other place- then your outlook on the world will be different. Your asperations will be compromised and your resillience in the face of many obstacles that others take in their stride will be impaired.

Whether you are Beveridge, Sturgeon or Biden, in order to pursue any political agenda, you will be confronted by much opposition. Some of this will come from institutional intertia. Change in large scale systems never comes easy, even when there is general agreement about the need for that change. I can testify to this after all those years working within the health and social care system.

But there will be other, much more direct, forces ranked against you. The think tanks. The largely right-wing owned and authored media, which is aligned with the top, not the bottom. The funding streams that subtlely shift policial compromise by a thousand cuts.

Good luck to you as you seek to tackle poverty, my friend. You will need it.

But how we need you.

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