Ignorance and Want

“This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol was first published on 19th of December 1843 by the superstar author of the day, Charles Dickens. It was an instant success – and continues to be so. It was a time when huge swathes of the world map were coloured red denoting that they were part of the British Empire. The riches from these other lands – their raw materials available incredibly cheaply ensured that the factories of Britain could produce goods to re sell on the world market at a competitive rate – often to those same countries they had harvested the raw materials from.

Huge fortunes were made for the very few but the bulk of the population struggled along. For many poverty, starvation, disease and homelessness was the norm. The Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834 established Work Houses where life was extremely tough to deter those who were ‘undeserving’. Families were split up and put to work for the workhouse. Inmates  were given just enough food to keep them from starving, clothing and basic education (perhaps) for children. Being out of work, being poor, unable to feed your children was an individual’s failure.

In the glorious Victorian age poverty had such a grip on society that many women were forced to take up prostitution. Young girls and children were preyed upon by the successful middle and upper classes who were doing  well out of a society built upon the backs of the working people of many lands.

This was the Britain Charles Dickens wrote about. The answer then was for individual well off people to contribute ‘charity’ to the poor. There was no welfare state to protect and provide for the most vulnerable.

The founding of the Welfare State was Britain’s greatest achievement established at a time when many politicians argued that we could not afford it. After the Second World War citizens rejected a Churchillian past and voted for a future – a Labour Government which went about setting up the welfare state, including a national health service, which would take care of people from cradle to grave.

The Health Service continued to grow and children were immunised against diseases that once killed or severely maimed them – Smallpox and Polio were eradicated from the country. Problem housing persisted with many living in damp and poor homes. ‘Cathy Come Home’ shocked the TV watching comfortable public in 1966 that there were many with no homes. Most shocking was how that could happen to anyone  – resulting in family separation, breakdown and loneliness.

In 2008 the Labour Government bailed out the bankers with tax payers money. At the time it was estimated as £500billion. The Labour Government saved Capitalism but condemned the country to massive national debts. Four years later the Liberal Democrat/Conservative Coalition Government continuing the policies started by Labour brought in the Welfare Reform Act. People were claiming too many ‘benefits’, many were fit to work but choosing not to do so, disabled people were claiming housing benefit for houses that had an extra bedroom where they were storing their mobility equipment. To make things ‘simpler’ and to deter many for making claims a new system was to be introduced – Universal Credit.

Universal Credit would bring together all those different benefits that were keeping folks heads just about the poverty line. People claiming they had a disability would have to prove it prevented them from working. Assessors with absolutely no medical knowledge, no knowledge about the claimant would decide how fit that person would be – and if they didn’t measure up on the check list then off to work they should go.

In 2016 ‘I Daniel Blake’ hit the cinema screens telling the story of how one man’s ill health means he has to turn to the welfare system for help and support – a system he has paid his taxes into. It fails Daniel as it fails many others. Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith said the film was unrealistic.

“I did think that whilst on the one level this was a human story full of pathos and difficulty, and I’m not saying  for one moment there aren’t serious difficulties and issues when you’re under pressure, when things like this happen … the film has taken the very worst of anything that can ever happen to anybody and lumped it all together and then said this is life absolutely as it is lived by people, and I don’t believe that.”

In 2018, Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights produced a report on the state of society in the UK – the 5th largest economy in the world. It stated:

” 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line,and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one”

“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society. “

“Poverty is a Political Choice”the Alston United Nations Report on Poverty in the UK

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 – states that in work poverty is rising faster than employment

“Over the last five years, poverty rates for children in lone-parent families have risen by around twice as much as those for children in couple families.”

Child poverty has been increasing since 2011 and “ virtually all of this increase in child poverty has occurred across working families.” 

Rents in the private housing sector have soared and affordable housing has not kept apace with the demand needed. At the same time as this has occurred those reforms so enthusiastically voted for by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories in coalition have made it harder to claim housing benefit – the bedroom tax . The Two Child Benefit Cap with its appalling Rape Clause has meant that a family of more than 2 children will be hit even harder.

Foodbanks rely on donations from the public. Their mere existence is proof that the welfare state has failed. Not because it was a bad idea but because it has been betrayed.  Betrayed by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative UK politicians the latter of whom are now out to dismantle it until we revert to those good old Victorian days of the individual benefactor providing for a handful of the needy.

In 2017 December was the busiest month for Foodbanks run by the Trussell Trust – the biggest provider in the UK and this year demand will be even greater.

 Emma Revie Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust said:

“Christmas is supposed to be a time for joy but what we’re seeing is the festive period becoming increasingly stressful for more and more people across the country. Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty – but what we’re seeing is people struggling to heat homes and put food on the table because they simply cannot afford the basics anymore and that just isn’t right.”

3 day emergency food supplies

3 day emergency food supplies – The Trussell Trust

When did anyone ever think that there would be a Foodbank in Orkney ? or in Shetland? or indeed in any part of Scotland ? – a resource rich, well educated nation. The Scottish Government has introduced some measures to mitigate the worst effects of the UK welfare reforms but this is no solution to the growing number of citizens now living at or below the poverty line.

When one of the many versions of Christmas Carol is beamed into our living rooms  we ‘enjoy’ this festive tale. A story of a rich man realising his successful life is one empty of love and joy but by being charitable he can donate a little offering to his low paid clerk. The poverty in his society is still there – the children are still starving and destitute. Today we donate to a Foodbank – the poverty in our society is still there – the working families relying on it will get a 3 day supply to keep them going. We live in a rich nation where nearly half our children live in poverty.

If you are not shocked – you are not only part of the problem – you are the problem.

Christmas Carol“This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

By Fiona Grahame



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3 replies »

  1. My mum used to sing this to me – and pointed out that the person telling the tale, could have/should have done something to help the children.
    At the risk of pontificating – learning to look about you, and think of others, starts at home, with your parents. And those lessons, stay with you.
    Today’s Britain, reminds me strongly of Victorian Britain – ‘charity’ seen as an answer, even as the answer. As Fiona points out here, it isn’t – the answer is to have a fairer society.
    At least Socialism exists now – it didn’t, back then – and might yet have a chance of working for the people of……….let’s say Britain, for now.
    HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS! – and I mean it. Do what you can to help, but misery, helps no-one.

    Two Little Orphans

    Two little orphans a boy and a girl
    Sat by the old church door
    The little girls feet were as brown as the curls
    That fell on the dress that she wore
    The boys coat was faded and hatless his head
    A tear shown in each little eye
    Why don’t you run home to your Mamma, I said
    An’ this was the maidens reply

    Mamma’s in Heaven, they took her away
    And left Jim an’ I all alone
    We came here to stay till the close of the day
    For we have no Mamma, no home
    We cain’t earn our bread, we’re too little, she said
    Jim’s five an’ I’m only seven
    There’s no one to love us since Papa is gone
    An’ our darling Mamma is in heaven

    Papa was lost out on the sea, long ago
    We waited all night, on the shore
    For he was a life saving captain, you know
    But ‘e never came back anymore
    Then, Mamma got sick, angels took her away
    They said, to a home fair and bright
    She said, she would come for her darlings sometime
    Perhaps she is coming tonight

    Maybe tonight, there’ll be room there, she said
    Two little ones to keep
    Then placing her arm under little Jim’s head
    She kissed him, and both fell asleep
    The sexton came early to ring the church bell
    He found them all covered, snow white
    The angels made room for two children to dwell
    In Heaven, with Mother that night

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