Sometimes amid yet another week of Brexit turmoil, it’s tempting to view the whole thing as a mighty distraction mechanism, an absurdist drama staged by the powers that be in order to distract us from more serious matters. The most obvious elephant in the room, of course, is climate change; but there are others, and one of them was to be heard trumpeting loudly in Scottish and UK politics this week, when some bright spark at Tory Party headquarters suggested to MPs that it might be a good idea to arrange a festive photo opportunity, featuring themselves making donations to local food banks.
Now of course, it is possible to see why this idea might appeal to a Tory advisor of limited political nous. What is missing, though – to an extent that baffles and chills – is the slightest hint of awareness that in British political life, food banks do not quite occupy the same position as other charities to which people might like to make a Christmas donation. Too many of us, after all, can remember a time when we had never heard of food banks; too many of us never imagined that anyone, in our 20th and 21st century welfare state, would actually be too poor to buy sufficient food.
Yet last year, it’s estimated that more than 1.3 million food supply parcels were handed out by food banks across the country; and as The Scotsman reports today, a fifth of adults in Scotland – almost half of them in work – now report that they have gone without food for a day or more, because they simply cannot afford to buy any. Wages in the UK have risen very little over the past decade, while poor working conditions, long hours, and chronic job insecurity have proliferated; and this has coincided with the UK Government’s sustained austerity drive, which has undermined many of the local public services on which less well off people depend. And last month, the UN rapporteur Philip Alston published his devastating report on poverty in the UK, accusing the UK Government of being “in denial” about the misery, humiliation and extreme poverty it has inflicted, and describing the British benefits system of 2018 as “punitive, mean-spirited and callous” in its approach to those it is supposed to assist.
Denial, though, is a major factor in current British politics. Just as any Tory advisor capable of acknowledging the scale and nature of the current UK poverty crisis would never have suggested those food bank photo opportunities, so the Government itself wasted no time, hilariously enough, in dismissing the UN report as “too political”. And in the court of public opinion, better-off people in Britain often dismiss the idea that real poverty exists today, simply because poverty no longer looks like the Victorian or early-20th-century stereotype of their youth.
Yet it’s arguable that in terms of shame and silence around their decline from relative affluence, isolation from a society that tends to judge people by their purchasing power, and inability to afford daily necessities once all other costs are met, those in poverty today are actually worse off than some of their early 20th century counterparts; by these measures, a shocking 40 per cent of British children are now living in poverty, with all the stress, health risks, and diminished opportunity that entails. And the question that has to be asked is why, by and large, we don’t care. A mere glance around Europe suggests that the levels of poverty currently being endured in Britain are neither inevitable nor necessary, and are indeed likely to cost us money in the long term, so drastic are their social consequences.
Yet crucially, when any politician lifts his or her voice to suggest that we should pay typical west European levels of tax, in order to repair our public services and raise them to the standard of most of our neighbouring countries, elements in the media raise a caterwaul of opposition so vehement that you might imagine that taxation actually represents theft, and serves no useful purpose at all; it happened again this week, when Scotland’s Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, already notorious in some quarters for failing to imitate the UK Chancellor’s recent tax cut for high earners, dared to suggest to the Financial Times that he might have a little more room to raise income tax on the better-off, before the law of diminishing returns begins to kick in.
When I first went to work in the early 1970s, in other words, the basic rate of income tax was 33 per cent; now, it is the 20 per cent; and although other “stealth” taxes have risen, British public spending is clearly too low to provide benefits and public services that meet international standards, and to support the kind of innovative, confident and flexible “knowledge economy” that will carry us forward into the 21st century. And now, we are about to take the huge self-inflicted economic hit of Brexit, which will diminish the resources available to British governments for years to come. This week, aged 85, Lord Heseltine – a veteran Tory of the pro-European and socially interventionist kind – rose to speak in the House of Lords Brexit debate, and made the argument that there simply is no way of helping the poorest in British society that does not require increased public expenditure at some level.
To vote for Brexit, he said, is therefore to vote for more pain for Britain’s poorest, worse care for the elderly, and greater social division and despair. And although his remarks were focussed on the great omnishambles of the Brexit debate, in truth it could have been extended to almost every aspect of economic policy. For unless Britain – or Scotland – finds a way out of the low-tax trap it has created for itself, and begins to spend on a public realm in which it can take pride, it is now on a one-way path to profound social decline and squalor; and to a society marked more by division and cruelty than by any of the values – fairness, compassion, or decency – that Conservatives so often describe as uniquely “British”, even as they act to betray them, in every detail of their policy.