This weekend on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions, Labour MP Tristram Hunt ridiculed the common comparison of our national budget to a family’s purse as an outdated 1980s concept appropriate only for a Grantham housewife.
I do not agree. I think the analogy of a family is VERY appropriate for our times.
Meet the Smiths
Up until recently, the Smiths were regarded as a rich family. John Smith, the father, had a prestigious role in the City with a vast salary, a London apartment and a high-roller lifestyle to match it. Jane, his wife, and the rest of the family lived quietly in Durham, but she had a decent career, and teenage daughter Janice had a weekend job as a waitress whilst she was working her way through college. The family was completed by little Joe, aged 8.
The family’s comfortable lifestyle came abruptly to an end, however, a few years ago. Apparently, dad’s high-octane lifestyle included a gambling addiction, and in 2009 a string of stupid bets had gone spectacularly wrong. With dad paralysed by panic, it was mum Jane who stepped in, took the loan which called off the creditors, and set the family on the road – if not to recovery – at least to survival.
A family in need
Although the Smith children suspected that dad’s disaster would damage their family, however, it took them a while to appreciate the full extent of the calamity.
The first time they realised was at a ‘family meeting’. The loan to clear dad’s debts, Mum explained, had been taken out in her name, and the repayments were taking most of her salary. She could keep the roof over their heads, she explained, but there would have to be vicious cuts to everything else … basically, Janice and Joe were told that from now on they would have to feed and clothe themselves.
When Janice suggested that maybe dad should help by contributing more to the family budget, she was amazed at his response.
John Smith – thanks to his wife’s prompt action – had managed to keep his job, and was still earning a huge salary. He still had his London apartment, was still out clubbing every night, and – the children suspected – had even started gambling again.
But his reaction to his daughter’s suggestion took them both by surprise.
John Smith was not at all repentant. He was sick, he told them, of supporting this feckless and indulgent family. Janice was just being lazy – she should go out and get a job. And Joe? It was pointless Janice arguing that he was too weak and vulnerable to fend for himself – Dad had seen him running round energetically in the garden, and it was time he stopped pretending to be little and started contributing to the family. Janice and Joe, Dad announced, would hitherto be charged a market-realistic rent for their rooms.
And it was Mum’s response that took them most by surprise, because Mum supported her husband to the hilt. If the children continued asking him for money in this way, Mum explained, then there was a real danger that Dad would leave them ... would up sticks and take off – and where would they all be then?
A family in distress
By this time, neither child retained any love or respect for either parent, and it seemed to Janice that there was little practical difference between a Dad who contributed nothing to the family’s needs, and a Dad who wasn’t there at all, but she genuinely hesitated to tell him to pay up or clear off (to the extent that she had any say in the matter anyway). The fear of dangers unknown was greater than her despair at the injustices of her current situation.
So she is currently looking after Joe as best she can, on the money she scrapes together.
But it is a hopeless task and, as the months go by, Janice and Joe’s teachers are noticing that – whilst Dad and Mum Smith seem as prosperous as ever – the children are beginning to look increasingly neglected, stressed and distressed.
Their problem, as teachers, is this; whether – or when – this family needs reporting.
In this parable:
‘Dad’ represents the bankers and businessmen, whose profligate and high-risk ventures caused the financial crisis and collapse of 2009. Now, of course, these people brazenly continue to demand their obscene profits and salaries, and indeed are seeking even greater deregulation and tax-avoidance.
‘Mum’ represents the government, whose firm action in 2009 averted financial meltdown, but which is now taking the Market’s side, failing to close tax loopholes, pussy-footing round the bonus culture, balking at regulation, and telling us that – if we do not accept this – the danger is that ‘the City’ will desert us for some other country.
‘The children’ represent British society, including both those who might be able to take care of themselves and those who palpably cannot. Together, they represent the people who are being penalised – who are carrying the burden of austerity – but who are at the same time called work-shy and scroungers if they dare to mention the difficulties.
Thus the analogy of a ‘family’ IS absolutely appropriate to our current economic situation – a dysfunctional economy, where those who might reasonably have expected to be protected have been abandoned and betrayed, and those who might reasonably have been expected to provide the wealth are instead demanding greater and greater rewards for doing less and less for society.
And finally, therefore, ‘the teachers’ are you and me, who need to decide when or whether it is time to call this situation to an end, to tell the Markets to pull their weight or clear off, to throw out the government, and to seek a new system … with all the uncertainties and dangers that would entail.