The International Red Cross, based in Geneva, has been in the headlines with a new report from the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, saying, “Whilst other continents successfully reduce poverty, Europe adds to it. The long-term consequences of this crisis have yet to surface.” The report then warns of the potential impact of austerity policies in terms of deepening poverty, mass unemployment, social division and exclusion and growing inequality. This highly respected international aid agency also warns of the potential social consequences where young people fail to find some purpose in their lives, more people drift into poverty, illegal migration generates more xenophobia and there are growing risks of political unrest and division. This is certainly Conservative Britain in 2013: a country fast becoming bitterly divided and dispirited where any sense of fairness, justice and equality are being sacrificed on the altar of narrow and backward policies.
This Government is an embarrassment. But there is more to come. The Red Cross will start to collect and distribute food aid in Britain for the first time since the Second World War! We appreciate the fact that charities do good work all the year round helping people in need, but under the Conservatives we are trawling new depths of misery, hardship and children are going hungry in our country. The Red Cross works in disaster zones around the world and is widely respected for its humanitarian commitments. But now part of their effort will involve going to supermarkets across Britain to find food for the needy.
This seems like a dramatic escalation of the soup kitchen, food bank and Wonga world of Osborne and Cameron. Imagine, as the ultimate in national humiliation, what could happen in the run-up to Christmas. At a time when thoughts are on giving and goodwill to all, your TV screen has an advert inviting you to make a donation to help the needy, not in sub-Saharan Africa but to feed the poor of Britain.
Surely we are reaching a shocking and deeply embarrassing point in the social and economic history of this country when the plight of the poor is being made much worse as the Conservative Government targets the poorest and most vulnerable for more misery and hardship. More worrying is the notion that our moral indifference and acquiescence is growing and as a society – including our politics – we lack the passion, anger and ethical values to do something about it.
The Conservative Government is unlikely to be moved by the plight of the poor but progressive political parties should confront this threat to national cohesion and solidarity. We can no longer ignore the growing divisions in our country and the scary comments of Lord Freud, a government minister, who believes people who use food banks “just want a free meal” and Education Secretary Michael Gove, who said the users of food banks “were often those who could not manage their finances properly”.
Poverty and children starving in modern Britain is not just about austerity and mean-spirited Conservatism; it is about what is right and wrong in society, how the national wealth is distributed and what kind of country we want to be. These are philosophical questions which, sadly, seem lacking in our political debate, to the point where the churches, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis, the aid agencies such as the Red Cross and enlightened single-issue groups and individuals in society, are generating a debate and action, while political parties seem muted, unsure and afraid to talk about these matters while the mayhem and madness of ‘modern’ Conservatism wreaks havoc on a great swathe of our fellow citizens.
Have we become immune to the suffering of others, or have we bought into the farcical idea that we are ‘all in this together’? Or because of austerity, do we think we can do nothing to close the widening inequality gap between rich and poor? Or can we not confront the excesses of the market which is sacrosanct for the current Government or do we have no moral views about the role of fairness and justice in our society?
Many in our country are frustrated because of the lack of leadership on these key questions, asking why this social, economic and moral decline is taking place.
In his book, The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis, a new wave Christian pastor in the US, talks about the relationship between politics and morality being absolutely vital for the future of society. Wallis asks: “Is it possible to evoke in people a genuine desire to transcend our more selfish interests and respond to a larger vision that gives us a sense of purpose, direction, meaning and even community?”
The relationship between our politics, ethics and public life remains at the heart of this inequality and poverty story. Towering above everything else is the idea of fairness in the context of justice and opportunity for all regardless of economic or social status. Look to America if you want to see the future: this is where obscene levels of poverty exist amidst plenty.
“The poor you will always have with you,” says the Book of Matthew, Chapter 26. George Osborne has taken this to heart and endorsed the concept, but the bible doesn’t say anything about enthusiastically expanding the numbers!