This is a moral tale, based loosely on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The original story highlighted the plight of the poor, especially at Christmas and to our shame the parallels between Victorian England and 21st century Britain are striking, and a more than a little discomforting. The story then as today, is about social injustice suffered by most of the population, many driven to poverty, while those who prosper believe that their only social responsibility is limited to paying as little tax as possible!
Our story begins.
It is Christmas Eve and Gideon Scrooge is in the Treasury counting house. Scrooge is seen by many as a bitter selfish man probably damaged by a childhood spent away from his parents in the best private schools. He now cares little or nothing about working people, prioritising wealth for the few above the welfare of the many.
‘Pay off the deficit’ no matter the consequence for the vulnerable.
Scrooge is a man without conscience about the impact of his policies on the poor. His independent advisers, the ONS, conclude that homelessness is at a 5 year high and 93,000 children will spend Christmas homeless not to mention the now one million people in poverty.. ‘Humbug’ says Scrooge, ‘these people are scroungers!’
The 19th century works of Dickensian Charity fundraisers resemble the food banks of today. They said then, that many need common necessities and thousands are in want of common comforts and it’s important we highlight the moral obligation of society to provide for the poor. But Scrooge embodied then as he does now the selfishness and indifference of the upper classes and elites of both 19th and 21st Centuries.
Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, is tapping away at his Treasury computer, trying to make Scrooge’s autumn statement figures add up. Employed on a zero hour’s contract, he would love to have time off with his family at Christmas. He is tired of being pressed to look at ways of balancing the books by taking from the poorest and giving tax breaks to those who don’t need it. But Scrooge is adamant that the poor should get little, forcing them to borrow from Wonga or other pay day loan sharks at ‘000s% interest to survive.
Bob has a disabled son – Tiny Tim – and his Christmas will be miserable without his family supporting him and having enough food to make merry. ‘Ah’, says Scrooge, ‘has Tiny Tim got a bedroom of his own? I’ll tax it!. After all, what right have the working poor to be merry in middle of winter? If you don’t work on Christmas day then why should you get any wages? You want a day off with pay? That’s just an excuse for picking the pockets of the hard working business owners and bankers, or worse, the Government. ‘We are all in this together you know.’
Scrooge’s nephew Fred arrives to wish him Merry Christmas and asks him to spend time with his Liberal family, sharing through coalition their hospitality, food and goodwill. ‘Humbug’ says Scrooge again, ‘can’t see that you we are busy working on the Austerity plan?’ ‘
I’ve tried to keep you on a tight leash and stop you being so harsh, but clearly I’ve failed,’ says Fred, and Scrooge sends him away with yet another flea in his ear with the promise of unfunded tax cuts for the rich and £12Bn cuts in Welfare Benefits.
Charities and the Archbishop of Canterbury arrive on his doorstep, asking Scrooge to provide for the poor and vulnerable. Oxfam argue that the poor are visiting food banks in huge numbers due to Benefits being delayed or withdrawn but Scrooge says that he won’t pay the poor enough benefit to buy luxuries like meat or alcohol, or provide sufficient means to pay their heating bills. ‘They are feckless – I’ve watched Benefits Street on TV, it must be true, Katy Hopkins and the Daily Mail say so’, fumes Scrooge.
That night, Christmas Eve, as he enters No 11, Scrooge sees in front of him, Marley’s face on the doorknocker. ‘What do you want?’ asks Scrooge, startled to see his partner in crime at No 11.
‘Be afraid Scrooge’, says Marley (David),’ Do you remember how I hugged huskies and hoodies? How much good did it do me? No one likes me!’ he cries. ‘Even though I went to Eton like you, I can purr like the queen, I can eat a bacon sandwich beautifully, I know how to represent my class! I’m a really good PR man but still I’m ridiculed and reviled by the lower classes, UKIP and that Junckers chap. What more can I do and get away with? We have to show these oiks, chavs and eurocrats that we mean business. We need to make this a prosperous land for the deserving rich, like us. Stick to the long term plan or else we are doomed.’
Later, just as Scrooge settles down to sleep in his silk nightshirt and austerity cap, he hears a clanking noise of chains and a ghostly wail from the cellar. Locking the door, his eyes rolling and feeling not quite with it, he covers his head with his Harrods duck feather duvet. He shakes uncontrollably. Is he afraid? Is he hallucinating? Or does he have some heavy nasal congestion? Surely what he does need is a strong pinch of snuff to clear his head and wake him up from this terrible nightmare. Still shaking, he watches as a terrifying spectre drifts through the wall, handbag in hand.
Madame Thatcher, Ghost of Christmas Past sails into his bedroom complete with handbag. ‘Gideon’, she yells, ‘stop shaking and snivelling. Don’t you dare start losing your nerve? Remember there’s no such thing as society! My actions caused the banking and housing crisis and diminished manufacturing industries but I didn’t go far enough. That was my biggest mistake; I was too soft –hearted. Stick to our ideology because then, as now, society is driven by fear which allows us to prosper and that means we don’t have to care for less fortunate souls!’
As in Dickens’ day, Scrooge’s current pursuit of and love for money above all else is seen as a virtue. Fear of its loss creates a selfish and inward looking society. ‘You must remember,’ says the Thatcher spectre, ‘I want you to manage society in the image I created 30 years ago. It’s always about demonising the ‘others’ – immigrants, the feckless and undeserving poor. Your task, Scrooge, is to build walls to keep people out, design weapons to protect the deserving rich and pass laws which instil selfishness, primarily to defend us from a world of perceived threats stirred up by nationalist fervour generated by Nigel and those odd people at UKIP’. Bolstered by this pep talk and a smack round the head with her handbag, Scrooge settles down to sleep but is soon woken by an even more ghostly and ghastly presence at his bedside.
It’s ID-S, the cadaverous Ghost of Christmas Present with his words of advice.
‘Today disabled people like Tiny Tim are challenging us, saying thus far and no further, but Nigel (the £shop Enoch Powell) in a previous manifesto says that the disabled are a parasitic underclass of scroungers so any benefits reforms should only hurt the poor, disabled and disadvantaged, whose ability to fight is affected because they are weak and becoming disenfranchised. Just what we believe. I’ve done my bit.
So far I’ve wasted £140M on an IT system to cap benefits to the most vulnerable and at the rate I’m going, it will take over 100 years to introduce my Universal Credit, by which time the poor will no longer be with us. Hooray now that is a long term plan! OK, I know we could have invested that money in the NHS but its better in the hands of the private sector after all. They really know how to waste money on technology systems that don’t work. Look at the Atos programme, withdrawing benefits from people with terminal illness or mental health issues who refuse to work, some of whom have gone on to kill themselves, And we’ve removed the safety net by withdrawing the local welfare system for those in crisis, and can bar the working poor access to the justice system. What a brilliant job I’m doing of dismantling the state. I’m so proud of our record.’
A teacher of 25 years shouts from the street below that some children in his class now cry at the end of the day; they don’t want to go back to a home which is dark, cold and with no food. ‘Rubbish’, replies ID-S. ‘You know the poor only have themselves to blame. Why Baroness Jenkins, says that poor people don’t know how to cook. Let them eat porridge it’s cheaper than going to food banks. No Christmas fare for them I say.’ The baroness’s husband, a Tory MP, was asked to payback £63,250 of dubious expenses claimed at taxpayers’ cost for their rented second home. ‘I think this is wholly unjustified’ says the Ghost, ‘He had to pay rent to his sister-in-law and she clearly needs the money, given she is the granddaughter of a Viscount and livings in a large castle in Scotland. She has lots of overheads and this really is the type of person we should be helping! Keith Joseph had it right 40 years ago, we need to stop the poor breeding as they only produce problem children and threaten the balance of our human stock. So I’m going to stop paying child benefit for more than 2 children that will change their behaviour’
Scrooge laughs ‘better they die and decrease the surplus population.’ Bolstered by the wise words of the Ghost of Christmas present, Scrooge starts to relax and settles down for a good night’s sleep. But just as he nods off another ghost materialises, standing at his bedside.
It is the Ghost of Christmas Future, a frightening sight, hovering over him as he lies slumbering contentedly, Autumn Statement clutched to his chest on Christmas morning.
‘The hour is late Scrooge’, the ghostly presence roars, ’and your misguided choices have brought us to the threshold of doom. We must decide what type of society we want and what kind of future we pass on to future generations. OECD says that you and your policies have helped create the most unequal society on the planet. Even today one of your own Tory MPs argued that anyone earning less that £150,000 per year were ‘dog end voters. That says everything about you and your austerity cap.’
As in Dickens day, demonising others – the poor, disabled, immigrants – produces protectionism and allows discrimination to operate. The only way forward is to wake up and choose a better way before it’s too late. Individually we should ask, are we all playing Scrooge’s tune of indifference and widening the huge gulf which already exists between the haves and have not’s? Today’s story resonates about what individual greed can do to the human soul and the price that the poor have to pay as a result. The same greed that motivated the Dickensian world permeates the collective conscience today. Are we doomed to continue down this path? Is there hope and where can we find the answers?
The ideology promoted by Thatcher and embraced with enthusiasm by the Coalition, distorts our priorities and hollows out society’s soul when money and power are used to keep people separate, alienating them from each other and destroying the sense of communities. It’s not fair to tax the very rich apparently, but it is right that we subjugate the poor and force them to shoulder the burden of the pain of the last 5 years and the pain yet to come; the IFS calculating that on present cuts alone, one third of children will have fallen into poverty by 2020.
Since Dickens, 150 years have passed yet we see the same lies being told now as then. The top 10% of earners fail to feel, or see the need to be, concerned about the plight of the poor. The Scrooges of the world – the bankers and moneymen who got greedy and paralysed the system and ruined it for us all – argue that they shouldn’t be taxed more (or at all). Gideon could be like Ebenezer Scrooge suddenly thawing out, realising the emptiness and stupidity of his beliefs, getting in touch with his humanity and sharing the burden of these dark economic times but somehow we doubt it.
Dickens story is now being played out on a global scale and a few, perhaps too few, amongst the privileged elite accept that they need to be taxed more because they see the world economy as unstable, accepting that unless wealth and economic prosperity are shared around more equally, everyone will suffer in the end. The question is what type of system can be built given what’s happened, can we choose different path? Why would anyone vote to return to a period of hunger, and suffering for the majority while the few make their wealth out of that suffering?
Ultimately, Dickens’ story was one of redemption – reflected in the way society changed during that time. We need to take courage from the Victorians who abolished slavery and child labour – going up chimneys, working in factories – improved working conditions, built infrastructure to avoid deaths from disease and unsanitary conditions, built social, housing for their workforce, brought education to the masses for the first time and created many of the institutions – libraries, building societies, the co-operative movement and local government – which we value, yet which the economic and social policies of Thatcher and the current government in particular seem intent on destroying. The social change of the 1800s led directly to universal suffrage and votes for women yet still created wealth and economic growth. We should build on the advances not return to the ‘dark satanic mills’ that Dickens evidenced in his works.
So who is the Ghost of Christmas Future? It cannot be one person, that’s the Coalition Christmas Carol way, the way of the individual. What frightened Scrooge then as now is the realisation that only by sharing economic wealth and benefitting society as a whole, will individuals, companies and institutions grow and flourish, unshackled by the greed and wealth of the few. And there are signs that voters are looking for an alternative to another 5 years of Tory austerity. Recent polls show that by a 20% margin, people believe that Scrooge is going too far. Tory support has fallen to 28%. And three out of four voters want a government offering a more balanced approach where tax rises for those with the broadest shoulders play a part. We have an opportunity to break with this obsessive deficit reduction mania and offer a public investment led recosntruction of what is a for most people, a broken economy. As Roosevelt said in the 1930s, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’.
We are the party of the deprived, the exploited and all those working people who just want a fair deal, let’s start campaigning for a fairer society, community by community!