Planned Poverty in the UK

Poverty made in Britain

On Friday evening On Iain Dale’s LBC programme, I was on with the urbane Nadhim Zahawi, Tory MP for Stratford-Upon-Avon, who claimed nearly £6,000 for heating his stables and £170, 000 in expenses in 2012-13. We argued about benefits cuts and rising poverty. He stated forcefully that  ‘reforms’ enable claimants to move on and up, regurgitating Tory propaganda. When he was nine, his Kurdish family fled Saddam’s repressive Iraq and settled here. It must have been hard. So the boy done good and done the party good too. See? They love striving migrants.

I too am a migrant who has found some success. But unlike Zahawi, I cannot forget the hard times, both back in Uganda and for the first years here. For most people raised in poverty, that fear and fragility still lurks inside, ghosts of times past.  My mother cooked and sewed for people; my father worked sporadically and disappeared for years. Sometimes the neighbours sent us food because the electricity was cut off and there were weevils in the lentils. My only brother, eleven years older than me had to leave school and work. He got rich but drank too much, was never able to be happy, died too young. My sister is mentally ill and hardly speaks.

Today, in the seventh richest country in the world, this government is on an ideological mission to punish and degrade the poor. Those who question the mission are savaged. It is political sadism. Cameron, Osborne, Ian Duncan Smith and others inflict incalculable pain on the most dispossessed because they can. The psychological harm to them and their families is irreversible. Mental health problems are increasing and services are unable to cope.  In the last fortnight, Vincent Nichols, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, has spoken up against the welfare policies which are leading to extreme poverty and at the start of Lent,  27 leading Anglican leaders wrote an open letter in the Daily Mirror expressing their disquiet about spreading hunger even among families where adults work. Rowan Williams went further. Those on benefits, he wrote, were not ‘scroungers’ but people who had no other options. ( Why haven’t Rabbis and Imams joined this truly moral crusade? )

Food banks are reporting increased demand and some are seeing people seeking sustenance who were once entirely self –reliant. There are three food banks in Hart in Hampshire, recently named the most desirable location in the UK to live. In my visits to food banks, I have met a teacher in his thirties who is now on disability benefits, a businessman widower who went bankrupt and a young mum from a housing estate whose three kids had eaten nothing for two days. The children were listless and unnaturally quiet, even when they were given a biscuit. She sobbed when we spoke and said she had thought of suicide so her children could go to homes where the cupboards are full. Some claimants are indeed idle or cheats, others drunks, smokers and gamblers. That would be true of all classes. But all children still deserve life chances. Remember the Big Society?  

Now George Eustice, the ‘food minister’,  finally admits that ‘families are struggling to afford to feed themselves’. Well, George old boy, where have ITALS PREVIOUS WD you been? On a space mission to Mars? Or just not peeping out from behind the gold Jacquard curtains of your privileged life? A review by academics at Warwick University  commissioned by the government on this crisis was completed last June. Its findings have just been released after much editing: though privation is indeed growing, it is hard to make a clear link between that and policies. Really? Meanwhile a Scottish government report has found that missing link. Obviously can’t trust those Scots.   

This Sunday, ‘radical’ coalition plans were helpfully leaked to the press. The government may reduce energy and water bills and hand food vouchers to the needy. They are running to catch up. Or maybe show willing, that’s all. Too late already.

In 2010, the respected IFS, an independent financial research organisation warned that by 2013, hundreds of thousands more children would be living in absolute poverty and that there would be the largest fall in median incomes since between 1974 and 1977. Fuel poverty was predicted to kill over 20,000 people, according to the Mail last autumn. Alison Graham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, has repeatedly said ministers are in denial about the extent of deprivation. They weren’t in denial; it was part of their cunning plan. Planned poverty. How can that be acceptable in a western nation? Unless the government changes course radically and finds its compassion ( won’t happen) those who vote for the Conservatives in the next election, will be assenting to policies which humiliate and mortify millions of men, woman and their children while they try to survive on starvation wages and punitive benefits. Democracy is, after all, responsibility. Is that what you want?   

The Independent, 24/2/14



Planet Green

Planet Green

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Biblical floods, submerged habitations, devastated, distraught people who have lost everything. This is turning point for me and, I assume, millions of others. I wasn’t daft enough to be a climate change denier, but  was just not that much  into green politics and environmental science. This is, I think, the first column I have ever penned on the subjects. My spouse, in contrast, is eco-aware and one of nature’s dedicated proselytisers. In the past when he started up about recycling, fossil fuels, deforestation or agricultural vandalism, I would sing Boney M songs loudly to cut out his words. ( He can’t bear Boney M).  Yes, frivolous and immature. After reading Germaine Greer’s latest book on the Australian forest she bought and returned to the wild, I had started thinking more deeply about the planet and human recklessness. Then came this washed-out  winter. Shock and awe have been followed by buckets of guilt. Guilt is good if it leads to personal and political reappraisals and candour.

Something seriously bad is happening to climate patterns all around the world. Typhoons, droughts, flood and famines have destroyed parts of our beautiful planet. But all that was happening out there, to other folk, often dusky and wretched, those who have been thought of as the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, perpetually needy. Though millions of pounds were raised by charities, concern was not sustained. Just last November, Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines. I had forgotten all about the cataclysm until I saw Simon Roberts’ heartbreaking pictures of the makeshift shacks survivors still live in. ( They are on the Oxfam website).  The 2004 Tsunami was different because several westerners were, tragically, swept away. Questions were asked if such catastrophes were getting more frequent, ferocious and were partly man made? Those become urgent as our isles deal with fierce weather onslaughts on people and places.

Surely most obstreperous refusnik feels duty bound to rethink orthodoxies, beliefs, behaviours, policies and biases? Some clearly can’t or won’t. Though most sceptics have been spookily silent recently, agitated Nigel Lawson has been coming out with bizarre explanations, blaming, among other ‘evils’, wind turbines, tilting, like pathetic old Quixote at windmills. His son, Dominic, is also a fundamentalist denier. These two and others within the ( hopefully ever smaller ) band of doubters want total proof and unconditional causality- knowing such absolutes are impossible at this point. They have yet to produce substantial, uncompromised, peer reviewed  research to prove there is no climate change. Or to reveal their links to businesses which may or may not affect the views they hold and disseminate. Their contemptuous disregard for facts and evidenced based theories should make them irrelevant. But the media just loves some mavericks and so they get to sound off and confuse the people, especially the undecided. After these storms, one hopes, Britons will listen less to these ideologically driven, right wing refuters.

On to another fave right wing  bogey- the  big, bossy state, which steals all our money and spends it on  pen pushers, lesbian fests and cruises for prisoners. Many of those same moaners, I reckon, have this week been blaming the Environment Agency and DEMANDING to know what the government has been doing/ will do to stop rain from falling on British soil and swamping their good lives. They now want big government, a sturdy nanny to take care of them and wipe their tears. Their anger and pain is evident and understandable, their demands right and just. Perhaps now they will stop their silly moans and pay taxes nicely. Only governments- local and national- and international bodies can plan for future climatic disasters and respond when crises arise.

Human relations too have been profoundly altered by the deluge.  Rushing and rising water recognises no class, race or wealth differences. Nor do humans when they are caught up in calamities. Preconceptions about groups wash away. Victims and those who go out to rescue them have to cooperate or sink. I have been struck by the camaraderie in the worst hit areas, the willingness to help, to share pain, treat each other with respect. Sure the farmers are angry with townies and vice versa, and there have been some disgraceful mutterings from Ukip types about how we should cut overseas aid, but that is all talk. When they have to, British men and women seem able to muster empathy and generosity towards strangers in distress. As they have this fortnight.  

In the volatile times to come, we have to  do our little bit for the environment. I promise to try harder. Anti-social rightwingers calling for the state to back off need to wake up and grow up. The wrathful rains have kindled kindness and resilience. The selfish among us must now know that without cooperation and mutuality, our citizens are vulnerable and perilously weak.  After this transformative winter, nothing can be as it was.   

The Independent, 17/2/14





War Mania

War Mania

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

My dad Kassam, who looked like Jeremy Thorpe, didn’t eat much, but greedily consumed books on British politics and British wars.  He bought them on credit knowing he couldn’t  pay the bills.  In the end, the owner of the only bookshop in town, banned him from his store. This was in Kampala, capital of Uganda. Exiled ignobly from his daytime hangout, Papa turned into Coleridge’s mad Ancient mariner, pulled people into his obsessions. One story he told over and over again was of an Indian relative called Jaffer, who had volunteered to fight with the  Allies in the Great War – as did thousands of other Indians and Africans.  In fact, at the beginning the Indian army outnumbered British army. Jaffer died soon after somewhere near Neuve Chapelle-Givenchy. ‘ War made him great, made him a man. Without his guns he would have been nothing, just a dukanwallah ( small shopkeeper)’   Jaffer’s suffering widow and kids didn’t get parts in Papa’s heroic yarns. Before I was born, he himself had tried to enlist when the next world war broke out but was deemed physically  unfit. I didn’t see the glory then and don’t  now.

What I see is countrywide mania, cravings for military braggadocio and justifications for action, most of which are post-victory, well shined up lies . The illegal war on Iraq was the only example I can think of when millions of Britons, high and low, rebelled against the mission, its pretexts and methods. That was a blip in an unbroken narrative of armed valour and supremacy.  Britain is arguably more addicted than is the US to wartimes past and present. Wars, not religions, are now the opiates of our people. And the state funds the drug habit, big time. With so much of the stuff sold energetically in the marketplace, few will escape from its effects. And there are no curative clinics, clinicians or therapists to help the young. Those who work with terrorists know how hard it is to detoxify a mind that has been indoctrinated. When the minds of millions are systematically turned by the UK political and military establishments, restoration to rational, independent thought is well nigh impossible. We are the great brainwashed.    

The government has decided that World War 1 will be marked over four years. Four Years, costing over 60 million pounds. Andrew Murrison is appointed the minister of the Great War. A minister for rain would make more sense. Jeremy Paxman was absolutely right when he said recently ( when talking about his own sensitive, BBC series on this conflagration)  that ‘only a complete idiot would celebrate such a calamity’. According to soldiers who were there and experts over the decades, the conflict was devastating, needless, ruthless, and dishonourable. It badly affected  Africa, Arabia, Asia and led Europe inevitably to the next global inferno.  Why even the right wing, pro-Empire, hawkish  historian Niall Ferguson, says: ‘ It was the biggest error in modern history’. Michael Gove will be most displeased. ( He looks and acts like a Dickensian character when most displeased. Will Fergusson be summoned and bent over a table and caned?) Our resolute Secretary of State for Education is determined to turn this remembrance into a pro-war cant- fest. As Simon Jenkins observed last week: ‘It will be the British at their worst; sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German…[already] there are war poems, war propaganda, war nurses, war horses everywhere’.

The potent myth of sacrifice is evoked whenever men and women die in wars. Britain beautifully embalms these victims and those to come in these sentiments. It is to ensure the army remains big, popular and ready for the next big battle. Five years ago the armed forces were no longer held in awe. Their PR sorcerers went into battle and got the nation to hug soldiers again, all ‘heroes’ who give their lives so we may be free. The poppy is now a mark of loyal citizenship. Once the people are manipulated to back the military, they do not ask why we must have the Trident defence system, just one part of which has gone up 600% in costs. Thanks to MP Paul Flynn we know the final bill will run into between 15 to 20 billion. My colleague Any McSmith ran this story in the paper last week. Was there any public consternation? No. How much of the deficit would be cut if we dropped this vanity project? How does it help fight the Al-Qaeda threat? Imagine if the NHS overspent this profligately.

The next four years will push militarism down our throats, so we assent to the next armed venture in a fug of druggy pride. Resist the peddlers. Read No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War, (ed Peter Ayrton) and seek the truth.  And know this nation is more than the sum of its wars.     

 The Independent 3/2/14