The first few days – possibly the first few weeks – after Christmas and New Year always feel like a bit of a hangover. The tinsel comes down, the last of the turkey is finally binned, the presents start to find their own places around the house and no longer become quite so special. The days are cold and grey and we no longer have anything to look forward to. The party’s over for another year, and we discover that Peace On Earth And Goodwill To All Mankind have not changed anything.
That seems to me particularly true this year. We went into the Christmas season in rather a grim state, and we emerged from it more or less the same.
Christmas is an important time for the economy – as much as an indicator of public confidence as for concrete revenue. Times are hard for retailers, and as far back as November I remember seeing Christmas-leaning advertisements, the outriders of what eventually became a seemingly endless torrent of happy smiling people revelling in their new purchases. On the High Street, shops were decked out with tinsel and fake snow and Santas and reindeer and happy happy Christmas muzak, all of it inviting us to join in the seasonal mood and buy, buy, buy.
This of course is at odds with the Government’s avowed policy of austerity, of cuts and economies to public savings. If we followed their lead, Christmas would have been a cold and grim time indeed.
As it was, we did spend less, according to a report from Which?, and just under half of us used some kind of debt – credit cards, loans, and so on – to fund what Christmas purchases we did make. Almost everyone surveyed said that they felt under pressure to spend too much. Which of course they did – we were bombarded with messages to spend, spend, spend. The fact that so many people felt obliged to turn to debt in order to do so will almost certainly come back to bite us, but at least the shops did okay.
Meanwhile, in the real world, I saw this shortly before Christmas, and it made me rather angry. That shoplifting is on the increase in today’s climate is hardly a great surprise, but the description of people stealing out of ‘desperation,’ young mums stealing stuff for their children, sits at right angles to the happy world in all those Christmas ads. It’s a scandal, and something that a rational person would think that any genuinely compassionate government would move quickly to address.
That this government is not compassionate is now fairly obvious. Again, shortly before Christmas I saw this piece about ‘food banks.’ The Conservatives’ flagship manifesto policy, going into the last election, was ‘The Big Society’ – an initiative in which local communities were to be empowered to take care of themselves and each other. Which sounds rather wonderful on first hearing – we’d all like to be empowered – but which, if you think about it, really means that Central Government wants to offload responsibility – both in terms of finance and infrastructure – to other people.
I suppose the government would laud food banks as an example of The Big Society in action, people helping each other without Whitehall’s intervention. Myself, I look on them as a warning flag from a country in deep suffering. Britain is a 21st Century European nation; the use of food banks should be falling, not increasing. It should be a matter of national shame that they exist at all.
Still, as we’re continually being told, savings have to be made. We’re all in this together, we have to channel the Blitz Spirit and get together and pull ourselves out of this.
And still more cuts have to be found. I’ve started to notice a trend, particularly regarding the government’s raids on the welfare budget. The trick appears to be to identify an area where large amounts of money are being spent, and then look for a justification to cut a chunk of that money. The easiest way to do it is to say that some of it is being handed out to people who don’t deserve it. Whip up public outrage, get everyone on your side. Thus we had the image during the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement of people going to work in the mornings and seeing the curtains of their benefit-scrounging neighbours still closed. No one likes to think they’re dragging themselves down a cold, wet street at seven in the morning to do a job they hate, while someone else is still in bed, being warmed by their unearned Giro.
The latest target is Tax Credits. Tax credits are payments from the government. If you’re responsible for at least one child or young person, you may qualify for Child Tax Credit. If you work, but are on a low income, you may qualify for Working Tax Credit. For many thousands of families on low income, they’re vital financial help.
They’re also, according to the Work And Pensions Secretary, wide open to abuse by fraudsters. Foreign fraudsters, at that. Time for a crackdown, to stop all those undeserving foreigners taking our money.
The Tax Credit was rather a proud achievement for the former government, and Iain Duncan Smith’s attack on it gave him a chance to repeat the mantra that all our woes are due to the Labour government – he seems to have said that Labour mismanagement of the Tax Credit system was the reason why public finances are in such a poor state. But the main thrust, the warhead of his argument, I suppose, was that foreign fraudsters are taking what’s ours.
I’m in some confusion as to how he knows this, because HMRC doesn’t actually keep nationality data for Tax Credit claimants.
That doesn’t matter, anyway. The purpose of his statement was to demonise a section of the public in order to justify cuts which themselves are aimed at proving to ‘The Markets’ how fiscally astute and fearless we are. ‘The Markets’ being, in large part, the global banking system which brought us to the edge of catastrophe in the first place.
We’ve seen this kind of demonisation before, with the unemployed and the long-term ill. The suggestion that they’re really putting it on somehow, or shirking, or somehow otherwise undeserving of any help at all. It goes hand in hand with the policy that the safety net has made us all soft and needy and that taking it away will get us off our lazy behinds and make us take all those jobs which are out there.
It really won’t do. Personally I’m rather insulted that the government thinks so little of us that it believes we’ll swallow this nonsense. It shows a rather interesting lack of sophistication and, indeed, compassion. A government which believes we can be so easily manipulated is really not a government worth having.
I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that a government has a responsibility to care for its electorate, and that includes affording a certain dignity and respect to its people. Not cherry-picking the easiest targets and turning the rest of the country against them in order to fulfill some hopeful economic policy which may not even work. It’s rather a shabby trick.
Leona Helmsley, the monstrous wife of real estate entrepreneur Harry Helmsley, famously sealed her own fate when a former employee at her tax evasion trial testified that she had once said, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” I think the government holds us in much the same contempt. It has developed what it seems to believe is a foolproof formula for justifying pretty much anything it does, and we should all keep an eye on that because next time it could be us they identify as undeserving.