Outsiders in London


Poverty and the Rise of Inequality in Britain

Important Note:  This article seeks to analyse the rise of poverty and hunger and the growth of inequality in Britain.   While it makes some references to other parts of the world, it will focus primarily on the issues raised in this London-based project, whilst acknowledging that these issues are largely universal and are therefore replicated in different forms around the world.

As the mangled quotation from the New Testament has it, “the poor are always with us”.   Rarely have property, land, wealth and resources been equally shared in society.   Rich landowners, the aristocracy, and the other owners of capital have always lived privileged lives, often in luxury.   The accumulation, management and dissemination of their wealth were managed by the professional and skilled middle classes, who were also sufficiently affluent to educate their offspring, to provide comfortable homes for them, to surround them with culture and the arts, and generally to keep them in earthly comfort and good health.   Quite apart from these two groups, the vast majority of the populace provided the essential reservoir of labour - men and women to work in agriculture and horticulture, to manufacture goods, to maintain gardens and to service homes and, in periods of territorial or political conflict, to defend their masters and their country.   Whatever their state, with regard to their individual personal liberty under the law, these workers were effectively serfs, mostly living in modest dwellings provided by their masters or in conurbations where the supply of rented property was almost entirely dependent on local lords, landowners or masters of industry and commerce.   Long after feudal times, all this was still perceived to be the natural order of things;  blatant inequality was ever-present but was seen to be neither unacceptable nor immoral even in the eyes of the Church, the guardian of society’s ethics.   The status quo was simply perceived to be the natural order.  

Once the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in the 18th century, enterprising industrialists and traders grew to greater prominence in society, with their newly-acquired wealth sometimes surpassing that of the landed classes, who often found difficulty in generating cash, though this is not to say that some canny members of the aristocracy did not themselves play a significant role in the Industrial Revolution.   The only significant shift for the majority of the population was that, over the decades, an ever-increasing proportion of workers moved off the land in order to labour in industry’s growing numbers of ‘satanic mills’, and to enter service with the expanding middle classes and the nouveau riche.   Thus, the plight of the impoverished majority, the workers, remained largely unchanged through history as they sustained themselves and their families by the sale of their labour, their skills and their crafts, often living in poverty and sometimes being pushed, by ill luck or hard times, to the brink of destitution, ill health and hunger.  

Theoretically, on the basis of what has latterly come to be called the ‘trickle down principle’, the immensely increased prosperity of the privileged, generated by the Industrial Revolution and vastly increased trade around the world, should have gradually found its way down to those at the bottom of the social heap but with what seems to be the age-old determination of Capital to drive down the cost of Labour, this principle has often proved to be no more than the dropping of a few miserable crumbs from the luxuriously laid tables of the rich to the indigent staff who were employed ‘below’.   The French may have had their Revolution and cast off the yoke of monarchy but, apart from the loss of a goodly number of royal and aristocratic heads, it could not have been seen, from the perspective of the poor, as a major restructuring of the social order - within less than a generation, France had replaced her king with an emperor and many of the nobility had returned from exile to resume the enjoyment of their ‘rightful’ inheritance.   The 19th century saw rebellion in many countries but these various endeavours to change the order of things met with very modest success in ameliorating the conditions of the labouring poor.  

Largely because of the considerable expansion of the middle class, a class that grew more numerous on the back of industrialisation, the extensive trade with Britain’s burgeoning empire overseas and the prosperity that flowed from such developments, Britain avoided even a nugatory revolution and in many ways British society was never radically changed.   (The Civil War, the Regicide, the Commonwealth and the Restoration had little impact on the working poor.)   The British middle and upper classes successfully ensured that the status quo that obtained in these islands remained largely in place and that no widespread revolution of the underprivileged masses would ever take place.   There were some improvements to the lot of the working poor as the nineteenth century progressed but these changes were carefully managed, curtailed and controlled.

British industrialisation and economic growth were dependent on a plentiful supply of labour, workers who now lived mostly in vast conurbations that had gown up around the large industrial complexes.   The substandard living conditions, bad housing, ill health and poverty of these underprivileged masses of the working poor were widely discussed in Victorian Britain and, while the establishment was not anxious to upset what they saw as the natural order of things, there was a genuine feeling in some quarters of society that something should be done to improve housing, sanitation and health, even perhaps to tackle the issue of poverty itself.   After all, Dickens’ descriptions of the desperate predicament of London’s poor had made their mark on the nation’s psyche.  

Early 1900 saw the first inspirational public housing project in East London, undertaken by the then London County Council whose members had come to accept that the appalling slums inhabited by 6,000 poor Eastenders was not only a major hazard to health and wellbeing but also the unacceptable face of a prosperous, industrial Britain.   Even so, when the First World War broke out and Britain had to mobilise its young men for the front, the lamentable physical condition of many urban recruits became immediately apparent to the recruiting officers, with young men supposedly in their prime of life being deemed unfit for active service.   This was noted with alarm by the authorities.   The real impact of chronic deprivation, hitherto disregarded by many in the upper echelons of society, was now staring everyone in the face;  the country’s successful prosecution of war might be compromised and its supremacy endangered, so diverting the gaze proved problematic.  

Many of these enfeebled young men would never come home from the muddy battlefields of France and Belgium but to those who did return from the horrors of the trenches, the nation felt an obligation to offer some hope of a better future and a better life.   A campaign known as, Homes Fit for Heroes was born in 1919 though there was, of course, always hovering in the wings a powerful lobby keen to resist this new compassionate dispensation:  the provision of affordable housing, paid for out of the public purse, was an affront to those rentier classes who had for generations grown fat on private rents, and for many in this class, the very idea of spending taxpayers’ money on the provision of subsidised, affordable homes was seen as neither acceptable nor socially desirable.   Progressive ideas about how to build a more equitable Britain, and indeed a more equitable Europe, continued to evolve between the two world wars, even despite the terrible economic conditions of the Great Depression that prevailed following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.   Workers gained greater protections at work, working conditions improved, and Trade Unions were accepted as an essential mechanism for voicing the rights of workers and the issues impacting upon the labouring classes. 

After the Second World War, Clement Attlee’s government managed to achieve something like a national consensus on these issues on the basis of which he was able to establish the ‘Welfare State’ and, through National Insurance and general taxation, to safeguard a minimum standard of existence for those who faced destitution through circumstances beyond their control - the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, the old and those in want.   The NHS was created to provide comprehensive health cover for all those in need, irrespective of their ability to pay.   A comprehensive system of free state primary and secondary education was wrought out of the disparate array of charitable and religious foundations that had existed hitherto.   And the state promoted a quite extraordinarily extensive building programme, constructing good quality, affordable homes for those who had until then lived in often substandard privately-rented accommodation.  It was a period of economic and political consensus largely based on Keynesian economic principles - a belief in the mixed economy, in the state’s investment in infrastructure as a means of counteracting depression, in the important role of government in regulating the economy, and in the need for many essential services, like health and basic utilities, to be operated outside the market.   It was a period when most people felt that building a more equal Britain, where the prosperity of the nation would be shared more equitably, was a good thing, a way of making Britain a more civilised and humane place for all its citizens.

It is important to note that the post-war consensus was not universally embraced;  it had its keen opponents too.   The nationalisation of many large industries, higher taxes, the introduction of the Welfare State, and an increase in regulation were many of the things that those on the conservative right found unacceptable.   In the USA, anti-Communist hysteria raged and the fear of contamination by any socialist utopia in Europe was intense - the USA may have been ‘the land of the free’, a land of opportunities for those those who managed to make it, but building a more equitable society was never high on the States’ political agenda.   Having said that, Keynesian economic principles informed a large part of post-war American economic policy;  the mixed economy was a reality and it worked well.   There was, however, a notable exception to this cosy Keynesian orthodoxy that would prove to have global consequences, it was a dark force growing in the North.   Taught and inspired by Milton Friedman in the Economics Department of the University of Chicago, hundreds of young economist (many from Latin America) were nurtured on a very different vision of the world order, a libertarian, fundamentalist version of market economics.   Friedman and his acolytes believed that world governance should be subject to one force only, the globalised market economy.   They firmly believed in lower taxes, the privatisation (or re-privatisation) of public services and utilities, and most certainly the de-nationalisation of industry.   Any business run by government or a public-sector corporation lacked the profit motivator, and was therefore seen to be inefficient, under-performing and essentially incompatible with capitalism.   The libertarianism they espoused also demanded an almost total deregulation of industry and, in particular, the financial sector - by freeing it, they believed that perviously untapped potential would create wealth and bring greater prosperity to nations.  

Soon, the graduates of the so-called ‘Chicago School’, that hothouse of neo-liberal economic doctrine, became the key economic strategic advisers to a number of right-wing military juntas that had taken over several countries in South America.   These states became the testing grounds for Friedmanite economic theory and the full force of totalitarian power was used to reshape the economies of these societies, often with truly catastrophic humanitarian consequences.   Milton Friedman himself became a popular adviser to many governments, and not just in South America.   Even in Britain, where the post-war consensus had enjoyed very broad support amongst the ruling classes, Margaret Thatcher was introduced to these Friedmanite notions by her guru, Sir Keith Joseph, and enthusiastically embraced those ideas that would start her down the road to what she thought of as ‘rolling back the frontiers of socialism’.   She was amongst a group of Conservative Party sceptics who had never quite invested their full support in the post-war consensus in the first place, and who were more than happy to begin a process of reshaping Britain to a rather different mould.  

Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US together prepared the ground for what was designated the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986, when the financial markets of New York and the City of London were largely deregulated.   From that point on, it was all ‘hands off’, ‘light touch’ regulation with the idea that some of the key levers in the management of the economy were to be left to be controlled by global market forces.   (The impact of this egregious folly would be felt just over 20 years later, with the near collapse of the world’s banking systems and, consequent upon the unavoidable bail-out of these tottering, distended banks, a ballooning of national debt to crisis levels amongst the major economies of the West.)   What also began to change was taxation:  tax law was modified, somewhat easing the tax burden on the poor but greatly relaxing taxation on the rich.   Of course, the super-rich usually contrive to avoid the payment of most taxes anyway, through off-shore accounts, trusts, and other perfectly legal (if morally dubious) tax-avoidance mechanisms.   As if to give impetus to this broad sweep of neo-liberal economic reform, the Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain was drawn, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and so did the Soviet Empire.   The Friedmanite sceptics needed no further convincing:  socialism, command economies, even Keynesian approaches to the management of recession were all perceived to have failed, to have capitulated in the face of the vigorous and therapeutic effects of the free market.   What happened next in the UK could almost have been a carbon copy of examples from around the world where Chicago School economics had been translated into policy, a series of disasters for the poor and bonanzas for the rich so well described in Naomi Klein’s enlightening and groundbreaking, The Shock Doctrine.

It would be wrong to suggest that there were no Victorian-style soup kitchens continuing with the charitable work of feeding London’s homeless, itinerant and destitute, even after the Welfare State was firmly in place, but the images of food banks feeding masses of hungry people came mainly from the USA, where at any time, almost 50 million Americans were uncertain where their next meal was coming from.   Many of us were perhaps naive in imagining that Britain could never go the same way, with respectable working families reliant upon food handouts just to get by. 

We must not forget that, even though we are now in the 21st century and the British Empire means little to most children and young people, Britain’s is still the 8th richest economy in the world (measured by GDP) and the second richest country in Europe after Germany, but no-one can dispute that things in the UK are very different these days from the time when the Post-War Consensus had its heyday.   Now all three of the main political parties are singing from the same hymn sheet - it is the harsh refrain of neo-liberal capitalism, of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ variety, that now drowns out all contrary opinion.   The mantra that celebrates the virtue of ‘small government’, of ‘low taxation’ and of ‘minimal regulation’ is now in the mouths of all our established politicians.   When, in 2007/08, what some people have happily dubbed ‘Casino Capitalism’, as espoused by many of our leading banks and financial institutions, created the worst financial crisis the world had seen since the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s, the world’s taxpayers had little choice other than to bail out the banks in what was a very real emergency;  this created a spectacular explosion in national debt in most of the economies of the West, with huge deficits appearing in the public accounts.   Almost unerringly, politicians around the world applied, or forced others to apply, a pure Friedmanite solution:  austerity.   In the UK, savage cuts were inflicted upon a panic-stricken and deeply depressed economy and ordinary British people discovered that it was they who were now to pay for this crisis by the continued erosion of their standards of living, their happiness and their wellbeing.   However, for the neo-liberal true believers and their political disciples, the banking crisis had created an almost ideal set of circumstances (what Naomi Klein describes as the necessary “shock” that must precede the application of the supposedly saving “doctrine”) in which to push through further privatisation of the remaining public services and to roll back even further what remained of employment and industrial regulation.  The Coalition Government in the UK (and their position is not wholly rejected by Labour’s essentially Blairite Front Bench) repeatedly and systematically describes the current system of welfare support as something “unaffordable”, denigrating those who are legitimately claiming benefits as “scroungers” and “the undeserving poor”.

Working people are faced, on the one hand, with an acute shortage of available housing and, on the other, with the escalating cost of private rented accommodation (covered in the companion essay, London’s Housing Estates & the Changing Face of Social Housing);  in consequence, families are being forced to spend an ever-increasing portion of their income on housing alone - for private renters this has risen to over 40%.   The principal utilities (water, gas and electricity) are now all privatised, with many owned by corporations based outside the UK;  in many instances, they behave like monopolies, oligarchies or cartels, with escalating prices that generate astonishing profits.   The privatised rail system presents commuters with annual fare increases that exceed the rate of inflation when, in  recent years, the uplift in salaries for most people has been held below price inflation.   Final salary pensions are now rarely offered by employers, certainly not to newly-appointed staff, and the abandonment of these schemes, allegedly on the grounds of affordability, has often led to markedly inferior alternative schemes into which a much lower level of contribution is invested by employers.   In the past, indigent workers who earned less than a living wage would have had their income supplemented by the State and, although the introduction of the Minimum Wage was undoubtedly very helpful (certainly in the capital, the Minimum Wage is widely accepted as below the ‘Living Wage’ required to survive) such workers’ supplementary benefits are being gradually curtailed.   Reports recently released by leading charities show that 37% of working families are having to cut back on buying food in order to meet household bills and accommodation costs.   It is thus unsurprising that almost 11% of working adults are skipping meals in order to meet their housing costs.  

During the recent period of austerity, the situation of the poor has deteriorated even further.   Councils have had their funding savagely cut by central Government at the same time as they have been required to take over the well-established provision for abating or waiving Council Tax payments for those in need.   This has effectively reduced such benefits substantially and many impoverished families who have never had to pay Council Tax at all are now faced with yet another substantial charge upon their diminishing resources.   Consequently, more than one fifth of the Council Tax due from people of working age was unpaid at the end of 2013/14 and hundreds of households have been taken to court by cash-strapped local authorities in an endeavour to recover unpaid tax.   What this does, of course, is to propel poor working people into the arms of loan sharks, payday lenders, and bankruptcy, with repossession, eviction, destitution, crime, and ultimately prison amongst the likely repercussions - it is truly a Dickensian nightmare.   In an almost Kafka-esque statement, the current Local Government Minister, Kris Hopkins MP, justified the cuts imposed on local councils by asserting that:  “Our reforms to localised Council Tax support now give councils stronger incentives to support local firms, cut fraud, promote local enterprise and get people into work”, thus reinforcing the fallacy that employment is somehow the solution to poverty and that only unemployed people can possibly be in need.

Recent statistics indicate that the proportion of young men and women, aged between 21 and 30, who are in work and classed as low paid has more than tripled over the past four decades.   The Resolution Foundation indicates that almost 30% of that age group (ie 1.5 million workers) are now categorised as ‘low paid’.   In their relentless drive to increase profit, employers have mastered the art of splitting into three or four jobs for part-timers what would once have been a decent, full-time job for one person.   Worse, these newly-created part-time jobs that bulk up the celebrated ‘new jobs statistics’ are frequently on so-called ‘zero hours contracts’, with no guarantee of a specific number of hours each week, with no job security, no pension, nor any of the other employers’ contributions hitherto associated with normal contracts of employment.   This one contractual device, the use of which is becoming rampant, has reinstated abhorrent employment practices that Britain has not seen since building labourers and dockers were employed as daily, casual labour.   Also seen in the supposed post-recession recovery has been an unprecedented growth in the numbers of the self-employed, a development that is being vaunted by politicians as itself evidence of economic recovery and of what an enterprising nation we Brits are;  the reality is much more sinister.   Most of these supposedly enterprising, self-employed workers are doing just the same jobs, in just the same places of work as they did before when they were normal employees, but now they are paid less for having to deliver the same service, as well as being obliged to bear the additional costs of making their own accountancy arrangements, paying for their own insurance, funding their own holidays, and in some cases, going without sick pay.   In his much admired, recently published book, Capital in the 21st Century, the French economist, Thomas Picketty, observes that:  “... squeezing the majority while allowing the richest to accrue unprecedented wealth does not create a rising tide that lifts all boats.”   On the contrary, what we are witnessing now is the battered, leaking old coracles of the poor tossed about, swamped and inevitably sunk by the wash of the super yachts of the obscenely rich.  

The long-term unemployed who simply cannot find jobs, because there are none in their locality or because they cannot afford to travel to somewhere else where there might be some, are now forced to accept any job - often working for no income at all - just to retain their minimum unemployment benefits.   (In the USA, this practice is called, Workfare.)   The nation’s Jobseekers are also subjected to thousands of benefit sanctions, upon the implementation of which an individual’s benefits may be withheld for anything from two weeks up to six months and, since Jobseekers no longer receive any other assistance at all, a lengthy sanction can leave claimants faced with destitution, eviction from their homes, and driven to charities and food banks as the only places where they can get the means to avoid starvation.   In the year to September 2013, the number of sanctions imposed on Britain’s Jobseekers was nearly 900,000, the highest figure since Jobseeker’s Allowance was introduced.

In his story, Dean Steers (#31) describes this bitter economic reality.   When he was employed directly by the NHS (then largely a public-sector employer) as he was for many years, he could survive modestly, living in a council flat and maintaining a decent, basic quality of life.   But the hospital needed to make savings, his area of employment was outsourced, established posts were replaced by subcontracted labour, and he found himself doing the same job as before but being employed through an agency on much lower wages;  his income fell to such an extent that he lost his council home and soon afterwards experienced sanctions which left him both homeless and hungry.

The Government claims it is reshaping the state, promoting enterprise, discouraging dependency, driving away the ‘scroungers‘ and dismantling what is seen as a ‘benefit culture’.   In reality, the new order is creating inequalities not seen in Britain since before the First World War.   Even the salaries of the professional middle classes are being curtailed in a climate where living expenses rise significantly every year, particularly the cost of utilities and travel, whereas salaries are often frozen or increased below the general rate of inflation.  University education is not only not free, it is hugely expensive, and various health services are becoming inaccessible to the extent that private medical insurance is becoming essential for anyone who can afford it.   Meanwhile, the wealth of the top 1% is burgeoning as never before, both in Britain and throughout much of the world:  recently published statistics indicate that the 100 wealthiest people in the UK have more money than the 18 million poorest people put together (ie more than 30% of the population);  indeed, Britain’s richest 1% have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55%.   Some commentators have found these now vast discrepancies in wealth to be deeply repugnant and a serious threat to social cohesion.

Richard Orr, Oxfam’s Head of Poverty in the UK said recently that the figures were a “shocking chapter in the tale of two Britains.”   The Trustle Trust, one of the leading organisations now feeding Britain’s hungry through its expanding network of food banks, had 423 such banks operating at the end of August 2014;  to meet growing demand, the Trust is opening two new facilities every week.   In the year 2010/11, they gave out parcels containing three days’ emergency rations to 61,468 individuals;  by the end of the year 2013/14, this figure will have risen to one million, and the trend is still rising.   What makes an already appalling statistic even worse, and blatantly contradicts the Government’s mantra that poor people are idle “benefit scroungers” and thus underserving, is that a quarter of the people now relying on food banks are actually in work - so much for the adequacy of the Minimum Wage!

In a recent address, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has observed:  “We live in a world where income inequality means that the concepts of fairness and income equality are struggling to survive.   Indeed, 1 in 5 people in the UK who are in work are not paid a Living Wage - and indeed 6 out of 10 families in the UK living in poverty have at least one adult in paid work.  This is an absolute scandal - given our corporate wealth as a nation.   We will not make this country stronger by impoverishing others.   Indeed the end result is more likely to be that our society becomes more dysfunctional and less cohesive as a result.”

The richest 1% not only hold most of the wealth but, together with the largest, often multinational corporations, they hold the politicians in the palms of their hands too;  they enjoy privileged access to MPs and to ministers, they purchase influence by donations to political parties, and they are thus able to help shape to their advantage the government’s strategic policies.   Almost without exception, multinational corporations now play one state off against another and move their profits across borders in order to minimise their tax liability, often through opaque structures of multiple subsidiary companies, and they contribute only the necessary bare minimum in taxation to those states in which they actually sell their goods and services.   Indeed, such is the present level of avoidance, evasion and non-payment that if the multinationals and the super-rich paid their taxes in the same way that ordinary citizens do - that is, if they paid all that is properly their due - there would be no deficit at all and no need for austerity anywhere.   Alas, the super-affluent dwell in a bounteous ‘parallel universe’, where they are untroubled by the obligations placed upon ‘little people’.   Corporations and companies, of course, though they can act in law in just the same way that private individuals can act, have placed upon them no legal requirement to act with any conscience or to take on board any social responsibility - their only duty is a duty to their shareholders, primarily to increase share value and to pay substantial dividends.   Though some companies do choose, one assumes mostly for PR reasons, to promote and to adhere to a sort of ‘social compact’, these are the few.   The overriding requirement of all corporations is to maximise profit;  they are literally amoral bodies and, though they are obliged to keep within the law, their current attitude towards greed has translated one of the Seven Deadly Sins into a respectable and widely-accepted business norm.

On the ‘other side of the tracks’, so to speak, in a quite different and much less agreeable universe, there now exists what might be called a ‘working underclass’, a mass of people who are in employment but who receive only poverty wages;  these are people who have to struggle to survive.   Though numerically, they are now the majority, they are still expected to adhere to the traditional, long-established norms of work and society;  they are expected to behave morally, to act lawfully and responsibly, to work hard and to pay their taxes.   However impecunious they have become, they are also still expected to consume.   It is an absurd paradox, hardly appreciated by the economic thinkers on the Right, that the very same employers who expect their workforce to survive on the Minimum Wage (a wage frequently now further eroded by the use of zero hours contracts, self-employment and the like) and who seem content to acquiesce in these workers’ reliance upon food banks, charity shops and so forth, also expect these very same people to do their duty as consumers and spend, because having driven down the cost of labour to the lowest feasible level, increased consumption is the best way for corporate profits to continue to grow.   The capitalist model is clearly now conflicted because, like many another ideology, it has descended into an irrational dogma;  when that happens, civilised society is in danger.  

The socialist/communist model may have had its elites, like all economic systems, but it did generally succeed in distributing more equitable rewards for labour - a surgeon in a hospital might have been paid the same as an engine driver - but these systems undoubtedly curtailed liberty and enslaved people, dissent was not tolerated, and anyone who wanted to leave for a better life elsewhere was refused.   Socialist dogma claimed that a better future was being built for the generations yet to come but in this respect, it was like the dogma of many religions:  today’s misery would surely lead to, if not indeed lay claim upon, a better life hereafter and the daily grind would lay the foundations of future bliss.   We have seen the somewhat unseemly haste with which the former Soviet satellites so eagerly embraced capitalism and the market economy and, while these models clearly offered greater freedom, prosperity and choice - there was lots more ‘stuff’ in the shops - the price to be paid came as a rude awakening to many.   The barbed wire had gone, but so had many of the factories;  those that remained open were now mostly owned by foreign companies and in order to keep their jobs, workers had to accept poorer contracts, often with lower wages, living in fear that their new employers might one day chose to relocate production to another part of the globe where the cost of labour was even lower.   These workers had been and remained basically poor, trapped in poverty and with little prospect of escaping from it, but now they had lost a whole range of social benefits that had helped to make life more comfortable and worthwhile.   The only people whom neo-liberal capitalism truly liberates are the super-wealthy and the teams of helpers and agents who facilitate their comfort and safeguard their wealth. 

Many things have changed over these last three centuries of industrialisation and there has unquestionably been genuine improvement in standards of living, with great progress made on all kinds of fronts.   But the poor are always with us:  in what is still the vastly prosperous ‘West’, we continue to have those who are kept, quite deliberately, in poverty and their predicament is used as a tool to keep the rest of us in perpetual dread that, should misfortune strike, we might all too easily find ourselves knocking on the door of a food bank.   What were the uplifting and humane provisions of the post-war Welfare State continue to be, in the political jargon, ‘reformed’ which largely means dismantled.   What was genuinely conceived as ‘national insurance’ was meant to be a safety net for those who contributed to it and who found themselves at some stage in need of support - in essence, it is a concept no different from any other kind of insurance where everyone pays in regularly to provide for paying out to those who experience misfortune.   The Welfare State still exists, but only just, and every day we see how hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women and children fall straight through its tattered mesh to find themselves in want.

Britain was once a proud nation that, even emerging from a destructive and cripplingly expensive war, aimed to reduce inequality, to offer free healthcare, education and a decent home to every working person, making every citizen a genuine and committed stakeholder in society.   Neo-liberal economics are just what that name implies:  workers are now seen as nothing more than ‘Labour’, a cost of production, a ‘human resource’, to be kept always as low as possible in order to maximise profit.   We seem to be citizens no longer;  now we are customers only for whom the illusion of choice is created and sustained to keep us docile and content.   But does anyone pause to think how much choice there is for those on zero hours contracts, for those who work part-time on the Minimum Wage, who are poor, hungry, and destitute, juggling two or more jobs simply to survive?   Perhaps it is foolishness to expect the new ‘Masters of the Universe’ to trouble themselves with the plight of the common people - the old masters hardly ever did - but it is high time for ordinary people who work hard and pay their taxes to ponder the economic and human cost of this new world order and its gross inequality;  if we don’t, we should all hang our heads in shame.   With so many destitute, homeless and hungry, or simply struggling week in, week out, just to make ends meet, do we have any right to be proud of our nation?   With our collusion, or at least our indifference, have our political masters really created what someone recently called, Cruel Britannia?

Page updated 25th September 2014

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.