The Two Nations of Britain and 'economic murder'

By Bernadette Meaden
March 14, 2018

In Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, published in 1845, an aristocratic character boasts that Britain is the greatest nation that ever existed. In response, a working-class character points out that there are in in fact, “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

The two nations are the rich and the poor. This resonates very strongly in 2018, when the gulf of understanding or sympathy between the rich and the poor, the governing and the governed, seems to widen by the hour.

Yesterday, after the Chancellor had boasted he was ‘positively Tiggerish’ about the economy, MPs with a basic salary of £76,000 debated whether children whose parents earn more than £7,400 should be eligible for free school meals. In that debate, MPs who expressed concern about children going hungry were accused of ‘scaremongering’, as those on the government benches preached a form of fiscal prudence in which feeding children who are not provably starving is seen as an irresponsible extravagance, no matter how Tiggerish the Chancellor may be.

Watching that debate, it really did look like a case of Two Nations, with many politicians either unable or unwilling to comprehend or acknowledge the poverty and hunger that exists, and will be exacerbated by, government policies.

But free school meals are an emotive issue – what really matters, as some government MPs were at pains to point out, is how the totality of government measures affect families’ incomes and standards of living. We now have a definitive analysis of exactly that, and it does not reflect well on government, to put it mildly.  

Today, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a cumulative impact assessment of all the changes to taxes and benefits which have been made between 2010 and 2018. ( http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/25411 )

The assessment finds that by 2022, one and a half million more children will be living in poverty. For single parent households the child poverty rate will increase from 37 per cent to over 62 per cent. And, making a mockery of the government’s ‘targeting help at those who need it most’ mantra, the Commission says, "households with at least one disabled adult and a disabled child will lose over £6,500 a year". This really is putting the boot into the most disadvantaged.

So, in echoes of Disraeli’s novel, as one of our two nations fantasises about Empire 2.0  after Brexit, the other nation worries about feeding its children and paying its rent. Whilst Theresa May borrows the rhetoric of  social justice, the disconnect between these two nations is writ large in virtually every decision the government makes, and every decision that has been made since 2010.

In the Prime Minister’s Maidenhead constituency, the level of child poverty is 13 per cent. In Bethnal Green and Bow it is 54 per cent. A politician with a genuine concern for social justice would design polices with the interests of the poorest constituencies in mind – a preferential option for the poor, if you will. As it is, we have had ten years of policies designed to cater for the comfortable – a preferential option for the rich.  

And it is no use politicians talking about social mobility as the solution. Children who grow up in poverty may, if they’re lucky, escape it as adults. But this will not counteract the effects of child poverty on their health in later life. The latest scientific research shows that "Now, we have evidence that growing up in poverty has a cumulative wear-and-tear effect on the physiological systems that govern how our bodies respond to our environment, permanently disrupting the ability of affected individuals to maintain good health in old age." We are now seeing life expectancy for the poorest UK citizens falling, and the life expectancy gap between rich and poor widening. Austerity, and manifestly unjust tax and social security policies are shortening the lives of poor people.  

One of the academics who worked on a study which linked austerity to 120,000 excess deaths said “It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder.” If politicians continue to pursue policies which can reasonably be expected to shorten people’s lives, what else should it be called? It is certainly immoral.

But the people who belong to the wealthy, fortunate nation, who will on average live longer, healthier, less stressful lives really need to think about what kind of country they are creating for their children. In his novel 'Strange Loyalties', William McIlvanney wrote a scene in which a reporter, making a documentary on a deprived housing estate said, "If we disadvantage the present of one section of society, we disadvantage the future of all society. The children of the well-off will not just inherit the wealth of their parents. They will also inherit the poverty of the parents of others. Even self-interest, if it is wise, will concern itself with the welfare of all. Not just the poor will inherit the bad places. All of us will." Or, as Disraeli put it, “The palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy”.

Politicians who push austerity and social security cuts may think they are building a strong economy (they’re not) but they are creating a future where we will all be poorer, if not financially, then morally, socially, and spiritually.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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