Festive decorations are going up but it’s going to be a bleak house for millions across the UK this Christmas.
The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report indicated that nearly 14 million people – one in five – live in poverty. Eight million were working-age adults, four million were children and 1.9 million pensioners. For them, it’ll be a stressful time simply trying to get by without the festive joy that’s supposed to come around.
It’s yet another in a litany of reports indicating that the situation is worsening for so many. The reduction in poverty that was taking place over the past 20 years has ended. It hasn’t come about through any natural calamity or by personal tragedy but due to political choices to enforce austerity. That’s down to the Tory Government and their policies.
Now, the Scottish Tories have been doing well recently as elections results show. They have been claiming credit for saving the Union while protecting Scottish interests, stating that they are holding the Scottish Government to account for its failings – whether perceived or real – and fighting Scotland’s corner on issues like Brexit or VAT on Police Scotland.
They consistently berate a Scottish Government that has been trying to reduce the hardship experienced by the poorest. Though, according to another report, the Scottish administration has had some success and the rise in poverty is in other parts of the UK.
READ MORE: First sustained hikes in child and OAP poverty for 20 years ‘show turning point’
The Tories are also demanding that more action is taken to plug holes created by Westminster austerity. However, on the social and economic policies of the UK Government, they’re stunningly silent. Yet, that’s where the source of the problem rests.
Now, of course, many Conservative politicians represent more affluent areas of Scotland, but though they may not have the same levels of deprivation as elsewhere, these can still have areas of poverty. As a consequence, some Scottish Tory MSPs have been out not just posting Christmas cards but posing for selfies at food bank collections. They may think that admirable but most of us just think it’s breath-taking hypocrisy.
Hunger will ensure recipients take what they are given, as they would from any source, but for many of us seeing those pictures it’s enough, as we say, “to gie ye the dry boak”.
READ MORE: Benefit cuts push extra 400,000 children into absolute poverty
For the JRF were clear that there were three principal reasons for the current situation and all rest with the Tory Government or can be mitigated by policies the Scottish Tories oppose. Firstly was the reduction in state support for low-income families. Amid the clamour for overdue pay rises, it’s often forgotten that Universal Credit has been frozen. A policy that in itself is cruel and vindictive is failing even to keep pace with rising inflation.
Secondly, rents are rising and the burden of keeping a roof over you and your family’s head is increasing. Yet the Tories have opposed both ending council house sales that lie at the root of much of the problem and have opposed rent controls to mitigate exploitation.
Finally, work is no longer the route out of poverty. The gig economy that they’ve presided over sees millions in work yet unable to maintain body and soul. No wonder the rocketing numbers of people at food banks have tended to be, not those on benefits but those either sanctioned from them or in work and still unable to manage.
Yet taxes on wealth have reduced and income inequality has increased. The obvious signs of prosperity for many are all about us yet conspicuous poverty is also ever more evident on our streets. In the forthcoming budget debates in Holyrood, the Tories will wax lyrically about taxes. Higher taxes for the wealthy will be condemned and while I recognise fiscal reality that can come from too high a rate, resulting in overall loss of revenue, I can’t find it in my heart to bleed for the penury that they might suffer. Besides it’s wealth not wages that needs taxed and those powers mainly rest in Westminster, not Holyrood. They’ll be okay this Noel whatever the higher tax band is set at. These self-same selfie-posing Tories will agonise over the JAMs – the ‘just-about-managing’ – who Theresa May sought to make her own and pledged to protect. Yet her premiership has seen inflation rise, the pound plummet and the just-about-managing’s slip further under.
The Tory response to the JRF report was simply to say that absolute poverty is down. That may be true but these are weasel words when the stockings are empty for millions of children this Christmas. The poor, it’s often said, have always been with us. That’s true as even when I grew up in a small and reasonably affluent town, there were poor families. Moreover, I visited relatives in deprived areas where it was evident.
But, it wasn’t as bad then as now. For, sure it’s compounded by social and economic changes, whether factory closures or drugs. There was a sense then though that it was morally wrong and needed to be addressed by Government. There was a concerted effort to try and tackle it, not just pose for a photo call. The social consensus from the Second World War still prevailed and even Tory premiers supported building council houses and providing a safety net for the poorest.
However, Margaret Thatcher smashed that consensus and now “Thatcher’s children” are seeking to create an entirely different society, based not on citizens’ rights but dependent on charity. Their code of ‘morality’ is to differentiate between a supposedly deserving and undeserving poor and where the rich get ever richer and the poor are left to rot. They are unravelling our welfare state.
My father grew up in the lea of a pit village in the 20s and 30s. Poverty there and in the Western Isles that he visited made him believe in a better and fairer society. There had to be a better way. He even fought in a war for it. As a wee lad I recall him saying I could vote any way I liked but never Tory. Like two thirds of Scots when I see the selfie-posing Tory, I know why.