Locked into poverty: Britain’s political choice

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has been in Britain. He described a country in which ‘areas of immense wealth’ exist uncomfortably alongside areas of acute deprivation, characterized by cash-strapped and overstretched public services, rough sleepers and food banks, where millions of children are ‘locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. His report pulled few punches. A fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. By 2022, child poverty rates are projected to be as high as 40 per cent. ‘For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace,’ he wrote, ‘but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. Worst of all, and most importantly, he pointed out that all of this was a political choice, the result of ‘mean-spirited, often callous policies’ about which the British government remains ‘determinedly in a state of denial’.

The reality described by Philip Alston will, I suspect, be familiar to most people living in Britain. Food banks are now commonplace, as are families who rely on them. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, handed out 1.2 million food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17. The Independent Food Aid Network estimates that there are more that 2,000 food banks in operation around the UK. Homelessness has also increased significantly since 2010, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), with a 60 per cent rise in the number of homeless families (including 120,540 children), driven, the NAO said, by government welfare reforms. The shocking rise in the number of rough sleepers is evident in every town and city in the country. Work is no longer a sure-fire route out of poverty. Some 60 per cent of people in poverty in Britain are in working families, often struggling with debt and poor housing, sometimes doing multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is a similar story for many of those living just above the poverty line, juggling low-paid, low-quality and insecure work, combining long hours with demanding family commitments and living in impoverished neighbourhoods where hope is in short supply. All of this – the poverty, the job insecurity, the homelessness, the stress and hardship of low-paid work, and, perhaps most of all, the absence of hope of things getting any better – are feeding Britain’s growing mental health crisis, not to mention the slow-down in life expectancy the UK is experiencing. These are all signs of a society in crisis.

Professor Alston’s analysis of the causes of this crisis are similarly hard-hitting. ‘Austerity’, he argues, has been driven not by a commitment to economic reform (the ‘living within our means’ mantra) but rather ‘a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’, a ‘revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it’. ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ he continues. ‘In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty’. Local authorities, especially in England, ‘have been gutted by a series of government policies’, effectively halving their funding and preventing them from playing their vital role as a ‘social safety net’. Libraries, meanwhile, ‘have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.’ The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities, the same groups likely to be hit hardest by Brexit.

In his conversations with ministers, Professor Alston encountered a combination of ignorance, disbelief and indifference, a refusal to accept that in-work poverty exists and an unwillingness even to engage with the issues in a serious way. He will not, therefore, have been surprised by the reactions of the Prime Minister’s office, which said that Mrs May ‘strongly disagreed’ with the findings, or the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, who declared the report to be ‘political’ and couched in ‘inappropriate’ language. These reactions were predictable, perhaps inevitable from a government which has carefully spun a number of myths about itself, notably the myth that austerity has been unavoidable, a necessary measure justified by the need to save the country from bankruptcy in the wake of the previous (Labour) government’s overspending on schools, hospitals and social care. This narrative has a powerful hold on the public’s imagination in Britain, where a substantial proportion of the electorate believes that decent schools for all and a well-funded health service are unaffordable, despite the very obvious examples to the contrary offered by neighbouring northern European countries. Professor Alston challenges this narrative, arguing that the reforms were neither necessary nor, in purely economic terms, effective. While billions have been taken from the benefits system since 2010, they have been offset by the costs created elsewhere as underfunded hospitals, mental health centres, local authorities and police forces attempt to deal with the problems created. ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,’ Professor Alston writes in the conclusion of his report. ‘Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’ Little wonder the government would rather attack the language and political nature of the report than deal with its substance.

The findings of the UN envoy represent a wake-up call and should prompt urgent action and a substantive change of direction from the government. Sadly, this seems unlikely from a government that is so in thrall to the fantasy narrative it has created that it is prepared to legislate against problems it knows do not exist, while allowing real problems such as poverty, probably the biggest challenge we now face as a society, to fester, unchecked. Nevertheless, the report represents an opportunity to take stock of where we have come to and to consider whether we really want to continue along this road. It can be read as a sort of draft manifesto for positive change in Britain. Alongside the misery of child poverty, the calamity of homelessness and the personal tragedy of women forced to sell sex for money or shelter, Professor Alston also recognised ‘tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services’. These are all things on which we can build, but I fear it will be to little avail if we are unable to create a different political narrative for Britain, one in which voters are not blinded by a false choice between austerity and bankruptcy. This is hugely difficult in a country increasingly divided by class, political perspective and geography, but it is essential that we find ways of talking to one another across these divides, of developing a meaningful consensus based on shared values. We need to decide who we want to be.

Poverty and inequality make these conversations difficult. Part of the reason poverty is so little reported is that it is simply not a factor in the lives of most leading journalists, who are drawn increasingly from backgrounds of privilege. Unsurprisingly, millions of people in Britain now feel wholly unrepresented by the media, their voices unheard, their views – or a caricature of them – routinely attacked or ridiculed. They feel acutely the ‘disconnect’ Professor Alston refers to between their own lived experience and the rhetoric of government ministers. As economically and socially damaging as Brexit is likely to be, it may also be an opportunity to reassess. We surely do not want to go further down the line of cutting back on public services, welfare, workers’ rights and conditions, in order to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy. This option is on the table and is, as I write, a strong possibility, but it would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, a bonfire of Beveridge and the welfare state and a shredding of the social contract that has been weakened by stealth by successive governments. We need to find ways to mend this fabric, restoring the role of local authorities in fostering community and connection, reversing the appalling loss of important public spaces such as libraries, community centres and adult education centres and creating opportunities for people to access education that is not narrowly about training for a job. We need to revive education for democracy, for public value, citizenship and a good society. The government has been fond of telling us it will not pass on the legacy of debt to future generations. Instead, it seems set to pass on something immeasurably worse, an impoverished and divided society, shorn of its values and compassion, in which privilege is hoarded and poverty is a life sentence. It is about choice. I hope Britain makes the right one.

A view from Calton Hill

Heraclitus, the notoriously enigmatic pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that existing objects could be characterised by pairs of contrary properties, and that these properties, by virtue of the tension between them, were essential to the continued flourishing of the whole. He termed this phenomenon the ‘unity of opposites’. Somehow, he thought, the ongoing conflict between opposite properties enabled a single, unified object to persist.

Although it is unlikely that Heraclitus – who is said to have preferred aristocratic models of government – would have intended it, his odd theory seems highly applicable in the field of politics (that is, as Heraclitus would probably have understood the term, ‘of, for or relating to citizens’). There is, I think, something to the idea that those societies that flourish and endure are, very often, characterised by just this sort of dynamic tension, between different classes or income groups – and that where the gap between those groups or classes becomes too great that cohesion is threatened.

I was thinking about this on Sunday as I walked up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, with its curious collection of classical monuments (Dickens described it as ‘a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture’) and its tremendous views across the city and out to the Firth of Forth. This must be among the best places in Edinburgh to begin learning about the city and how it developed, from the smoke-blackened, boozy disorder of the Old Town and its narrow medieval streets, to the precise geometrical elegance of the New Town’s squares and circuses.

The development of the New Town in the late eighteenth century saw the wealthier citizens of Edinburgh move out of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Old Town to more genteel, spacious homes set on wide roads, with large, green civic spaces. The poor remained in the relative – and fast deepening – squalor of the Old Town. Overcrowding, poverty and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics of cholera and other diseases in the first half of the next century.

The Old Town of the eighteenth century was cramped and it was dirty. But it was also vibrant, brilliant and exciting, a melting pot of new thinking and ideas, in which the poorest citizens rubbed shoulders daily with the wealthiest and most educated, and where the old order was taken apart and new principles put in its place. The Scots, David Hume wrote, were now ‘the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe’, and that at a time when ‘we have lost our Princes, Our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the presence of our chief Nobility’. This loss did not create a vacuum but rather a space for debate, fierce, convivial and fearless, much of it centred on the Old Town’s numerous taverns, of which Hume, among others, was a notable and enthusiastic frequenter.

A number of factors made the Scottish Enlightenment possible, among them the quality of Scottish education and its openness to ideas from the continent. The growth in the educated population of Scotland meant this renaissance in thought was not confined to a small number of literati, or to the ranks of the aristocracy, as it was in France, but was, as the historian Tom Devine notes, ‘widely diffused throughout the ranks of the educated classes’. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were not only aired and debated in the pubs of Edinburgh’s New Town, but were also ‘described, analysed, questioned and refuted in pamphlets and journals such as the Scots Magazine, in the contemporary press, in sermons and surveys like John Sinclair’s massive Statistical Account of Scotland, published in the 1790s, which provided an examination of the way of life of over 900 parishes compiled by the local ministers.’

It was this broad dissemination, Devine argues, that ‘ensured the social acceptance of basic ideas that might otherwise have remained arcane, remote and abstract’ and which helped ground them in observation and the practicalities of life in eighteenth-century Scotland. They saw human experience as the touchstone of true understanding. The Edinburgh literati may have been, to varying degrees, born to privilege but their lives were not so remote from those of other classes that they could be indifferent to them, while the spread of school education in Scotland during the second half of the seventeenth century and the rapidly expanding middle class meant there was a large and engaged audience interested in their ideas.

Undoubtedly, too, those ideas and the rejection of hitherto unquestioned – and unquestionable (Scotland’s last execution for heresy took place as recently as 1696) – authority seeped into the consciousness of the poorer classes of society. The wealthiest had close, face-to-face relationships with the poorest, often sharing the same buildings (the rich on the upper floors, the poor on the lower ones) and they frequented the same churches, brothels and alehouses. Skilled artisans helped swell the membership of the city’s numerous learned clubs and societies, and university access widened to include the children of merchants and tradesmen.

The nineteenth century saw Edinburgh’s New Town flourish, while the Old Town plunged deeper into squalor and increasingly wretched poverty. The rich and the poor began to lead separate lives. By 1880, when the educationalist, environmentalist and town planner Patrick Geddes moved there, the Old Town was notorious for its appalling housing and poor living conditions. Geddes moved into James Court, where David Hume had once lived but which was now little more than a slum. Geddes believed that social change needed to come from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from above (however well-meaningly). He improved his own building and encouraged his neighbours to work together in improving theirs as well as their wider community. Geddes also believed that a vibrant community required a mixture of people from different backgrounds living side by side and enjoying the kind of face-to-face relationships they had in mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh. He founded a hall of residence in renovated properties around Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, including one in Riddle’s Court, another former Hume residence, which now houses, among other things, the Edinburgh offices of the Workers’ Educational Association (appropriately, Geddes’s Latin inscription above the archway to Riddle’s Court reads Vivendo Disciumus – ‘By Living We Learn’)

Geddes didn’t believe in getting rid of tradition. His idea was to build around it, improving what was good and valuable, building better housing where necessary, and making use of derelict spaces, often through the creation of gardens and other green spaces, which he thought essential to the flourishing of community. He saw the city as a microcosm of society, as a kind of blueprint for wider social organisation. A flourishing community, he thought, meant people of different classes living common lives. This created the best conditions for making successful societies. Likewise, in his academic life (Geddes purchased the Outlook Tower on Castle Hill – now known as the Camera Obscura – to be a sort of sociological laboratory), he believed in bringing disciplines together, in thinking and learning holistically – that our view is better when we see the connections, the ways in which things are held together, as well as the things themselves. Places of learning, like people, need spaces in common.

I’ve written before about Machiavelli’s Discourses and his view of social conflict as useful, even necessary, to the success of a state. He is perhaps as unlikely a bedfellow of Geddes as you could wish to find, but they do have one thing in common. Machiavelli, like Geddes, saw that a stable, successful society required a degree of commonality between classes, a sense that all classes are living comparable lives, a part of the same society. The rich, Machiavelli argued, should not become so rich that they become arrogant and indifferent to the needs and demands of other groups, and the poor perceive them as remote and out of touch. And the poor should not be so poor that they live without hope or the prospect of a better life. These ‘opposites’, to borrow again the language of Heraclitus, need to be in close enough proximity to make possible the sort of dynamic tension that is necessary for the survival and flourishing of a society. As Geddes also saw, vibrant communities are untidy communities, mixed, diverse and dynamic, with a rough equality between classes – enough at least for people to see that they are living their lives in common.

This is a hard lesson for us today. In recent decades we have seen, on a larger scale, a process not dissimilar to that which split Edinburgh in two in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The rich have become richer, their lives ever more remote, their wealth unimaginable to the vast majority of ordinary people and their grip on politics, the professions, the arts and the higher reaches of the education system increasingly firm. At the same time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned this week, insecure, low-paid work is putting record numbers of working families in poverty. Two-thirds of the people who have found work in the past year are employed in jobs paying less than the living wage (with many on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours). Between 2008 and 2013 average pay for the lowest paid fell by 70p per hour for men and 40p per hour for women, while the richest 1,000 Britons increased their wealth by more than £155 billion. Growing inequality unsurprisingly correlates with declining upward mobility. Life chances are increasingly dependent on who your parents are.

The education system, one of the key means by which we might reduce poverty and narrow the income gap, is, at the same time, becoming more and more polarised, with a broad liberal education – another fairly basic requirement of human flourishing – increasingly the preserve of the children of the rich, while the less advantaged make do with training which may give them skills but falls some way short of providing them with an education. As Michael Young foresaw in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, an education system which confers approval on a small minority of its population (and qualifies the success of everyone else) effectively hands that minority control of the means to reproduce itself. To see the consequences of this you might compare, as Young later did, the social origins of members of Atlee’s post-war cabinet with those of Tony Blair’s – or with those of Ed MIliband’s shadow cabinet.

Little wonder then that the political class has become less plural and politics a much narrower business in which most fundamental questions – including those about the conditions in which people can best flourish – are off limits. Austerity politics has become a most effective cloak under which to pursue often fairly radical ideological goals to which human ends are secondary – all largely unchallenged by a compliant media with an equally strong and undisclosed ideological commitment. It is depressing indeed, but perhaps unsurprising, that in times such as these a party of closed-mined xenophobes – a coalition of the rich, the ignorant and the desperate – should be considered a compelling, even progressive, alternative.

Patrick Geddes recognised that people, like any life form (Geddes was also a botanist), thrive in the right conditions. Politics should be about identifying and helping improve these conditions for everyone. As those great theorists of adult education John Dewey and R.H. Tawney also saw, at the heart of this must be the idea of a common life – a life which embraces all in a community, treats every member as free and equal, and attaches equal value to the needs and aspirations of all. Sadly, we are fast becoming not one but two countries – divided by wealth, opportunity and prospects for advancement. Working-class people are not only unrepresented (fulfilling Michael Young’s prediction of the consequences of educational selection) but, by and large, unheard, except in contexts which demean or diminish them. As Geddes realised, only by being immersed in the lives people lead can you begin to understand them. The government’s boasts about the resilience of the economy mean little when the lives of so many are getting worse, with little out there to give them hope of something better in the future. I doubt many members of the current political class have much understanding of how utterly demoralising and damaging it is to be branded a failure by the education system and then denied the means of turning things around and making your life better. It seems that everywhere you look second chances are either disappearing or becoming unaffordable to most. Geddes showed that people can build communities which are rich, vibrant and fulfilling, but we must first create conditions which, in the enduringly brilliant words of Raymond Williams, ‘make hope practical rather than despair convincing’.