The Observer, Sunday October 12 2008
At the TUC, the gossip among the comrades was all about the presence of David Threlfall on a demonstration against child poverty last week. Although you only have to glance at the FTSE100 to know that child (and adult) poverty will soon explode, the march was not well attended.
Everyone who turned up was welcome, but old Labour protesters still wondered why one of the stars of Shameless had joined them in Trafalgar Square.
If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t missed much. Shameless, along with Little Britain and The Jeremy Kyle Show, is 21st-century television’s prole porn.
Whereas wealthy media executives once sought to investigate poverty or arouse anger against it in documentaries and dramas such as Cathy Come Home or Boys From the Black Stuff, now they commission programmes that laugh at it.
Threlfall plays a parasitic alcoholic whose delinquent children engage in underage sex, thieving and pigging themselves sick on drugs, booze and junk food. They choose to live this way, runs Channel 4’s not-so-subliminal message. Don’t feel sorry for them, they’re grotesques who indulge in perverse pleasures at the taxpayers’ expense.
Richard Exell of the TUC is organising a conference on what modern sociologists like to call ‘povertyism’ and what more straightforward people call ‘class hatred’.
As he printed leaflets which pointed out that half the poor children in Britain have parents who are working in low-paid skivvy jobs rather than scrounging on the dole, he told me: “Obviously writers and actors must be free to do what they want, but I don’t understand why they can’t show sympathy for the poor when they laugh at them. Dickens managed to do both, after all.”
Perhaps Dickensian sympathy is about to come back into fashion. Readers who have not felt the fragility of their prosperity in the past few weeks must either be very rich or remarkably unimaginative. I know from frenzied conversations that the crash has made those who worry about poverty – politicians, charities, the unions – dizzy with apprehension. Like City dealers, they have watched governments and central bankers make extraordinary interventions, only to find that the markets are still falling.
As yet, we have not reached a firm base where everyone from fund managers to debt counsellors can take a breath and make sensible forecasts about the future. So the following predictions are provisional, and probably over-optimistic, but here we go. Both the TUC and the CBI expect unemployment to go above two million and to carry on rising. Construction and financial services are on their knees. Retail is in almost as bad a state and if there’s a small business that isn’t worried about its credit lines, The Observer would like to hear from it.
Even before tax receipts began falling, and the government bailed out Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley and the wider banking system, the state’s finances were a mess. Ministers would have been hard pressed to find extra help for the needy if the banks had not collapsed. As it is, spending cuts and tax rises are unavoidable in the medium term.
As for this once happy nation of shopaholics, in August last year Britain passed a grim milestone. Consumer debts – mortgages, loans and credit card bills – overtook the entire gross domestic product. To put it another way, the British now owe more than the value of the produce of every office, farm and factory in the land. This is a bankrupt island.
Without the cushion of savings to break their fall, hundreds of thousands are tumbling towards poverty. Millions will stay afloat, but will nevertheless experience a sobering shock, a fearful intimation of what it might feel like to lose everything. In these circumstances, it seems reasonable to join with the TUC in hoping that the jeering of the Shameless culture will disappear with the bubble. Unfortunately, the history of economic crises suggests that a revival of common humanity is far from inevitable.
My generation has propagated a romanticised view of the recession of the late Seventies and early Eighties. To hear us talk, you would think we were all listening to punk and raging against poverty and oppression. In truth, punk was an ambiguous movement, which foreshadowed the rise of the right as much as a revolt by the left; Margaret Thatcher’s line that ‘there is no such thing as society’ might have been the title of a Sex Pistols song.
It was also such a minority taste that I sometimes think more people have written about the history of punk than ever listened to it at the time. As in the depression of the Thirties, the overwhelming majority of the British preferred escapism to gritty realism. As in the Thirties, they gave the Conservative party enormous majorities.
Altruism can seem a dispensable luxury when times are hard. Recessions have always had the potential to persuade voters that their interests and the interests of their families must come first. The present crisis, however, has an unprecedented and, in my view, alarming dimension. The crash has come 11 years into the longest-serving left-wing administration in British history.
Paradoxical though it may seem, the Labour government’s very longevity may work against the interests of those who are already living in poverty and all those who are about to join them. Behind the prole-baiting of the media lies the widespread notion that taxpayers have given the government billions to help the poor.
If the recipients of all that charity are still on the breadline, then their poverty is the result of their own laziness. Wider society has done its best, really it has, and can now condemn the ungrateful slobs with a clean conscience.
It is a foolish mistake to believe that the recession will guarantee a revival in social solidarity. There are no guarantees and solidarity will have to be fought for. People may fight harder if they realise that politically, economically and culturally, the advantage currently lies with their opponents.