Edwina Currie, you will realise, has got her head in her hands (again) recently. She made a ‘young, struggling Derbyshire mother’ named Hayley Sanderson cry on a Radio 5 Live phone-in programme. Apparently Ms Currie’s response to the woman’s plight was to ask her if she had a dog, or satellite TV.
Yes? Well then (Ms Currie’s reaction can be summarised), stop moaning – you’re not really poor.
Ms Currie’s comments have indeed raised a storm of left-wing vitriol. Even the LibDem Guardian published a sanctimonious rebuttal:
‘Poverty is relative and since when did the African poor cancel out our own poor? … one in five mums, like [Ms] Sanderson, [go without] meals to feed their children … when people like Haley Sanderson have the courage to speak up, they should be treated with respect’.
Should we care that Ms Sanderson was reduced to tears?
Do I feel sorry for Hayley Sanderson? Not really.
Firstly, I am sure that Hayley Sanderson is a lovely woman, but you have to be at best naïve to phone Edwina Currie hoping for sympathy about your financial situation. Ms Currie’s views on British poverty are well known – she recently told Owen Jones that you cannot be poor if you own a mobile phone – and I am sure we can all think of many, many people we would go to before we phoned her on Radio 5 Live for advice on our money problems.
And – at the risk of incurring your wrath (and please read to the bottom before you troll me) – you have to agree in part with Ms Currie’s analysis. A dog costs, apparently, £1,400 a year to keep - that's nearly £30 a week. It is very easy to end up paying £70 a month for satellite TV.
So let’s face it, if you or I (through our own fault OR NOT) were reduced to the point where we were unable to feed our children, is it not true that we would be looking for savings … and that the dog and Sky TV would be costs we would review.
Most of all, with due respect to Barbara Ellen in the Guardian, and for all my left-wing opinions, I would NOT be phoning up Edwina Currie.
And I don’t think you would be either.
You CANNOT expect these Tories (I will say appositely and very amusingly) to give you the lickings of a dog!
(‘Boom boom!’ as Basil Brush would have said.)
The Ideological Conundrum
But does all this make Ms Currie right?
SHOULD the answer to the Ms Sandersons of this world indeed be: ‘Go away, cut your living expenses, make ends meet, stop moaning … you’re not really poor’?
Since they got into power, the Tories have mounted a dual-assault on the less well-off of our society.
The first argument is that we have to reduce the deficit, and they have certainly won the public debate on that – to the extent that Labour is arguing just as hard that we have to reduce the deficit. So it is unsurprising that a cost-cutting government should be casting around to find some welfare benefits to reduce.
But the Tories’ second argument has been an ideological one – to suggest that somehow we have been giving the poor TOO MUCH … that we have created (as Corelli Barnett claimed in 1986) a ‘Santa Claus’ state which has encouraged ‘an uneducated, unskilled, unhealthy working class hanging on the nipple of state provision’.
Alarmingly, it is true that this attitude, also, has chimed with the public. I was amazed that the only response to my Parable of the Neglected Children – which compared the government’s attitude to the disabled to that of parents requiring an 8-year-old child to care for himself – was one which suggested that, recently, they had been ‘a bit molly-coddled’.
The Tories appear to have won the propaganda war on this one too.
The point is that – despite all the manufactured outrage about the nasty pasty making the yummy mummy cry – most people in this country agree with Edwina.
The moral of the tale of the weeping woman
Instead of worrying about Ms Sanderson, however, I think I would ask you to consider the ideological issue.
Our society has pledged to care for those who find themselves unable to care for themselves. That, for goodness sake, is the very underlying principle of a ‘welfare state’.
Also – let’s be brutally honest – amongst those ‘unable to care for themselves’ there are ALWAYS going to be those who find themselves in that position for different reasons. We are NEVER going to be able to engineer a clear-cut world in which all the poor are ‘deserving’ poor, or to separate them from the so-called ‘undeserving’.
There are ALWAYS going to be cases of people who have eaten themselves to obesity, or blundered their way into poverty.
Where do you draw the line between addiction and mental illness, or between culpable mistakes and mental weakness?
It reminds me of the prayer we used to say at Church where we asked God to forgive us for our sins, committed ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’. The reality is that it matters not how we got into that state – just that this is the state we now find ourselves in, and that something needs doing about it.
As a society, we have promised to care for the poor and I think it is just an unavoidable fact of life that we are going to look at some of those poor people and wonder whether they only have themselves to blame.
Come to terms with it.
For me, it is the irrelevant issue – the immediate relevant issue is that they are poor (and the truth is that, as well as giving them the wherewithal to live, perhaps we need also to be giving them the wherewithal to sort out their problems).
The Tories’ argument about the deserving poor is the same argument as that which suggests that we should refuse medical treatment to lung-cancer patients who smoke, or to drunk-drivers who have crashed … because they only have themselves to blame. It is a sort of ‘let-them-die-it-serves-them right!’ argument
And it is only the same argument as that of Edwina Currie, who can tell a woman that she must be poor because she didn’t save enough when the times were good. ‘Go hungry – it serves you right!’
At, at this point, Edwina Currie suddenly becomes ‘wrong’.
Once we, as a society, have pledged to maintain the poor and the weak (and, yes, the incapable and the feckless), the next thing we surely need to do is to decide what standard of living we are going to afford those people.
SHOULD someone who is ‘living on the state’ be able to afford to keep a dog?
Do we regard it as an entitlement that state benefits should stretch to Sky TV, or mobile phones for the children?
Just exactly what minimum standard-of-living do we require for the poor and the weak of our society?
Just exactly what level of ‘poverty’ are we – as a civilised society – prepared to tolerate?
As I say, public opinion at the moment would overwhelmingly agree with Edwina that Gordon Brown was far too soft, and that the poor of our society should NOT have given to them the things that the rest of us have to work hard to obtain … and sometimes still find ourselves unable to afford.
But my biggest problem with that line of thinking is that, in essence, it requires us to build a society where those of us who – from age, catastrophe or disability – find ourselves unable to care for ourselves, are consciously maintained at a level BELOW that of the rest of the able-bodied, working, more fortunate population.
It is an ideology of welfare which requires that the poor MUST be kept visibly poorer than the rest of us.
It is an ideology of welfare which demands that the ‘have-nots’ indeed ‘have not’.
It is a TORY ideology of welfare.
And I’m not sure that I particularly welcome it.