There are songs that take you back in an instant to childhood. For me, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is definitely one. It brings back memories of primary school assemblies, childish voices singing ever so slightly out of tune and the tiny drama of who got cast as what in the nativity play.
Such innocence is now lost amongst ‘the blue remembered hills’, as Housman might have put it. It’s somewhere you can never find your way back to.
Forty years on
Forty and more years on, too many children will never have memories of the festive season to sugar coat in middle age especially if they are part of the 7.2 million households identified by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as having to go without essentials to make ends meet in their report Going Under and Without, published just before Christmas.
Based on a large-scale study of households in the bottom 40% of incomes, the findings are truly shocking. Among the details, you can learn that 62% of the households questioned were doing things like skipping meals and showering less to keep bills down. Even so, 41% were still in arrears with at least one bill and 28% were unable to keep their home warm.
Equally stark are the findings of a YouGov survey carried out for the Resolution Foundation. This found that 31% of the poorest families were reducing what they spent on Christmas because they feared being plunged into even greater hardship in January.
Living in dire circumstances
Speaking to the Guardian, Save the Children chief executive Gwen Hines said “Many families in the UK are living in dire circumstances right now and we know Christmas and the new year is going to be particularly difficult. We are concerned January will be the time financial hardship really begins to bite.”
Over the past year, Save the Children, who are more often associated with aid work overseas, have provided 2,334 grants to support struggling families in the UK and are increasing funding for the programme to meet anticipated demand.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that around half UK households are buying less food due to the rising cost of living. Again, the most vulnerable households are bearing the brunt: 61% are buying less food than last year, with a potential impact on their health. 23% of them said they were reducing the size of meals or skipping them entirely to cut costs.
The Joseph Rowntree foundation is calling on the government to take action to help struggling households. This includes providing additional cost of living payments and helping people who are behind with their rent.
Out of touch
The problem is that our politicians don’t seem to have the capacity to understand the problem. This was shown in arc-light sharpness by the widely reported exchange between prime minister Rishi Sunak and a homeless man which has launched an armada of mocking memes.
Helping out at a soup kitchen, the PM asked the man if he “worked in business”. The reply was truly heart breaking. Showing more dignity than most could muster in similar circumstances the man said, “I wouldn’t mind, but I don’t know, I’d like to get through Christmas first.”
Car wreck encounters between politicians and the public are nothing new. Mr Sunak’s predecessor seldom let a day of her brief tenure go by without delivering at least one.
This encounter though says everything you will ever need to know about the yawning disconnect between the political class and the rest of us. Faced by suffering that he is at least partially culpable for having caused, the best he could do was fall back on fatuous small talk, and he even made a hash of that.
Time for a plan, Rishi
I started this article with a childhood memory of singing ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Perhaps Rishi Sunak should take a leaf out of the book of the protagonist of another popular Christmas song, Good King Wenceslas.
Leaving aside that it’s an idealised representation of Christian kingship, it does show someone in a position of authority using his power to do good in a constructive way, as opposed to turning a photo-op that was cynical to start with into a pratfall.
He could start by reading the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report as he munches on leftover turkey, then coming up with a realistic plan to help the individuals and families who have precious little in their larder at Christmas or any other time of year.