“Crisis? What crisis?” During the economic turmoil of the late 1970s these were the words wrongly attributed to then prime minister James Callaghan. Those words were, in fact, a fabrication of a journalist from The Sun, but they connected with the public mood at the time and helped Margaret Thatcher enter Downing Street shortly thereafter.
Conservatives tell people to work harder, budget more, and cook better
Fast forward to today. We have a PM who is presiding over an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis with inflation at a 40-year high; we have Conservative MPs ‘encouraging’ people who are struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes to simply work harder and earn more money. According to Lee Anderson, Conservative MP for Ashfield, food banks are unnecessary because food poverty is caused by failure to budget and cook properly. He said:
“Yes, we’ve got lots of food banks but, actually, if we get to the real nub of the problem in a lot of cases, then there are generations of people out there that simply haven’t got the skills to budget properly and to go shopping and do a proper weekly shop like we used to back in the day, and use of fresh ingredients to make nutritious meals.”
Unfortunately, Mr Anderson, not everybody has access to the publicly funded subsidised bars, cafes and restaurants available to MPs throughout the Palace of Westminster. Perhaps he might carve out a new career for himself on Tik Tok demonstrating how, with portion control, you can make a can of beans last several days.
Better still, perhaps he could advise us how to get an invite to one of those ‘eat and drink as much as you like’ lockdown parties for which Downing Street has now become notorious.
Why can’t the UK fund the welfare and healthcare services?
The UK remains one of the wealthiest countries on the planet which should, in theory, allow us to adequately fund our welfare and national healthcare system. There can be no excuse for food and fuel poverty.
Those who benefit most from talent or good fortune can afford to contribute through taxation to the common welfare of others who need support at some point in their lives; that shared decency is what binds us together as a society.
In a recent interview, Boris Johnson was asked about a woman who travels all day on the bus to keep warm because she cannot afford to heat her house; his answer was that as Mayor of London he was the one who provided free bus passes to older people. In other words, be thankful you can keep warm on a bus rather than in your home: it is tone deaf to the everyday reality of so many people in the UK right now.
Food and fuel shortages
Crippling life-limiting food and fuel poverty are associated with previous centuries, but today it has returned as a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.
How can it be then, that almost every supermarket in the country has a food donation point for local communities? The growth of food banks also stands testimony to the fact that social contract is at breaking point.
Surely that is a siren call that something is not right.
The cost-of-living crisis is not simply morally repugnant, it is an economic growth barrier. It stunts the growth of small businesses serving local communities and risks plunging our economy into recession. Multi-national companies can survive medium-term economic ebbs and flows: smaller local companies cannot.
As a nation we take great pride in our NHS providing free access to healthcare. Our challenge now is to provide people with sufficient access to food and heating: the necessities of life.
How we do so is of course a difficult question, but the answer must be better than free bus passes.
How to respond to the crises
What we need is a social Marshall Plan which recognises the scale of the problem and enables investment to correct an economic imbalance. Given the nation’s wealth, this is surely a challenge we can meet. The wealth is there, it is just not being shared with those who need it most.
This crisis is not going to be resolved overnight: it will take years before inflation is brought back under control. We are yet to face the full cost of living impact of the illegal war in the Ukraine which has already and will continue to drive up food and fuel costs.
Political games do not resolve crises
Let’s be honest, there are no easy answers or quick fixes, and political polemics help little. What we need is a government willing to reach out across the political spectrum to find solutions to a national crisis we have not faced in decades. That’s what people want, not divisive them-versus-us traditional Westminster-style politics.
Labour’s recent proposal for a windfall tax on energy companies’ excessive profits was rejected by every Conservative MP: why? Because it was a “Labour” proposal which means politics trumps reasoned consideration of how we help people at their time of need.
Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol, and impact on cost of living
Brexit has already pushed up food prices because the UK no longer enjoys the benefits we once had from being part of the Single Market and Customs Union. The cost-to-do-business has also risen in almost every sector, meaning prices for the public rose as an inevitable result. Brexit did not cause the cost-of-living crisis, but it has been a main contributor.
At this time of economic crisis, the UK government is dialling up its war of words over the Northern Ireland protocol threatening to break an international treaty Boris Johnson signed.
At a time when living standards are so low, a trade war with the EU is the last thing the UK needs, and yet each day we hear government Ministers spout anti-EU rhetoric whilst offering no solution to the domestic cost of living crisis. That would be an act of economic vandalism piling yet further pressure on hard hit households.
Tearing up the Protocol is not so much cutting off your nose to spite your face as doing so whilst taking a shotgun to both feet.
Whatever the solution to the current economic situation we must not impose food bank dependency on future generations.