A rich legacy
Western leaders appear much more comfortable talking about the struggle for equality in foreign lands than they do about addressing the inadequacies of our own.
Much has been said about the giant that was Mandela. He changed the world, recalibrated a nation, set us an example of how to live our own lives. He shone a light on human frailties and yet remained an optimist. And President Obama hit the nail on its head when he said this was a time to reflect on how well we had applied Mandela’s lessons to our own lives.
Too many people, said Obama, embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation but resist reforms that challenge poverty, injustice and inequality.
And while David Cameron might have just been too busy taking a ‘selfie’ to understand that those words could be as easily directed at him as to some of the African leaders that came in Mandela’s wake, the constant booing of President Zuma from the home crowd was a reminder of just how distant South Africa still is from the rainbow nation ideal that Mandela craved; of shared prosperity, reduced poverty and social peace and how easily it is to laud an ambition but fall short.
What struck me, watching the political leaders from around the globe gather in Soweto to celebrate the life of a man whose achievements dwarf them all, was how Western leaders appear so much more comfortable talking about the struggle for equality in foreign lands than they do about addressing the inadequacies of our own.
And while Gordon Brown and David Cameron ran out of superlatives to talk about Mandela and the transformation of a nation, they rarely speak about the horrors we are experiencing now in the UK. And they are stark.
In the same week that Mandela died, Oxfam called for the Government to establish a Commissioner for Poverty, the Red Cross revealed it was mobilising food collections for the first time in the UK, Douglas Alexander called on Scotland to rally round the idea that walking away from the Union would be turning our backs on Britain’s poor and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted a new phenomenon – the working poor.
Poverty is, in all its manifestations, a blight on our society and a scar on our conscience. True, some might have been lifted out of the formal definitions of poverty over the years but it has been marginal and far too easily reversed. The argument today isn’t about the return of the ‘80s under Thatcher because poverty never actually went away.
Free school meals, pensioners afraid to put on the heating, families scavenging for food, kids going without breakfast, credit card bills soaring, out of control debts, mortgage arrears, house repossessions, homelessness and generations of families accepting their lot. Poverty isn’t just about a lack of cash in your pocket; it is also about an impoverishment of the soul, of ambition, of humanity, of a sense of worth and a place in society. It retards our present and disables our future.
And yet still the Westminster Coalition Government forces through its so-called reforms of the welfare system; ‘reforms’ that see the disabled forced to endure demeaning assessments, women forced into unemployment because reductions in tax credits make childcare costs prohibitive, the mentally ill pushed further into an abyss as they are made to rethink their limitations, even when they have already been assessed unfit to work and people going through the humility of seeing bedrooms being measured to define what they are. The majority of these changes are still to come and yet people are already, quite literally, dying from the stress of it all.
We live in one of the most unequal societies in the Western world and yet our political leaders say things are on the mend. In the 21st century, we have food banks dolling out free food that people can’t even afford to heat, we have pensioners too poor to be warm and people struggling in work knowing that low pay prevents them from making ends meet. Yet UK Government ministers have had the audacity to blame bad housekeeping. This from a coalition that not only implements the cuts but can write off £40m on an abortive IT system designed to make the payment of welfare benefits easier. Absurd.
Poverty has been a central political plank of 2013. The ‘bedroom tax’ has made for an easy headline and the heart-breaking stories of financial hardship have become the norm.
Our politicians talk the talk on ending inequality but they merely tinker around the edges. New Labour made huge advances, principally down to the minimum wage, improved maternity rights and progressive projects such as Sure Start. But to its great shame, it also allowed for the financial conditions that cultivated a massive leap in wealth inequalities between the very top and very bottom of society. And even though child poverty fell by nearly a quarter between 1998 and 2009, this was still not enough for the Government to hit its child-poverty target to reduce it by half. If you were born poor under the New Labour Government, the chances are, you are still poor today. We are one of the most unequal societies in the Western world and all that is different under the Tory-led Coalition compared with what came before is the rate at which that gap is widening and accelerating.
The question is, how do we eradicate poverty? And in the midst of a constitutional debate that issue will increasingly come to the fore. Douglas Alexander asks whether Scots really want to abandon the poor in the rest of the UK or should we stay wedded together in solidarity. Others question what the Union has done for them and whether a United Kingdom with its successive governments – of the right and the left – that has delivered soaring poverty and desperate inequality can really be trusted to deliver change.
Increasingly, welfare reform will become important to the independence debate and it will be incumbent on all sides to set out their stall.
Mandela said of poverty that it was made by man and could be eradicated by the actions of man. What more fitting a legacy than to fulfil his dream and end poverty now.
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