News from Nowhere: When the Chips are Down
This is the state of the UK today: One of the richest countries in the world unable – or unwilling – to afford to feed or safely educate its children.
Towards the end of last month, the owner of a fish and chip shop in Wales hit the UK's national headlines when it was reported that she was helping to ease the pain of local children’s empty stomachs through the school holidays by offering a very popular series of lunches for only £1.
This heart-warming story recalled the hugely influential (and partially successful) campaign launched three years ago by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to push the British government to extend the provision of free school meals outside term-time for those most in need. The much-revered Mr. Rashford’s passion for social justice has inspired many businesses, charities, religious organisations, and individuals across the country to raise funds and to take direct action to support the fight against food poverty – including London’s Labour mayor who this month introduced free lunches for all children at primary schools.
Yet the fact that anyone – let alone so many of our schoolchildren – is still going hungry as a result of economic deprivation in one of the world’s wealthiest nations is, of course, both a scandal and a disgrace.
Various figures on the right of politics have chosen to propose that if people could just shop sensibly for bargain and unbranded items – and learn better how to make gourmet meals out of the simplest raw produce – then every belly in the land would be happily full.
It appears that some of them believe that all that the so-called “great unwashed” (as they seem to see those most in need) have to do is to stop swilling their champagne and caviar and look instead towards more reasonably priced fare – as if millions of British people weren’t already surviving on supermarket baked beans and stale toast.
A year has passed since the Daily Express – a newspaper so right-leaning that it makes the tower at Pisa look perpendicular to the earth – published an article extolling the virtues of rotten food.
The article quoted as its expert nutritionist a daytime television presenter who claimed that moldy foods still can be eaten and “won’t do you any harm”.
“One moldy raspberry is not going to harm you,” the medically unqualified consumer journalist said.
In a less self-righteously right-wing publication, we might have taken this intervention as a hoax, a satire upon those multimillionaire Tories who like to hand the populace helpful hints on feeding their families for a few pounds a week. But, sadly, the Express newspaper’s caricature of Conservatism lacks the sense of humor, and the sense of perspective, that such a parody would require.
Nevertheless, some of its own readers may be surprised to discover that in the years since the UK left the European Union, so many ordinary working people have come to rely on the generosity of their local food banks, community centers, churches, mosques and takeaway outlets to feed their families.
This situation is, after all, a far cry from the utopia of sovereign prosperity their favorite paper once promised them.
After all, it was only six years ago that the ardent Brexiteer Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg – a politician so right-leaning that he makes the sinking Titanic look perpendicular to the sea – declared (again, to the Daily Express) that the country’s freedom from the shackles of Brussels would result in a 20 per cent drop in food prices, as well as a rise in the quality of the food we eat.
“What Brexit should be about is ensuring the standards of living of readers of the Daily Express et cetera are high,” he apparently said.
Sir Jacob, of course, not only supported Boris Johnson’s typically hasty and ill-considered maneuver to withdraw the UK from its key trading partnership, but also went on to act as chief cheerleader for Liz Truss’s brief and catastrophic premiership, wrecking the British economy with a double whammy of political idiocy and populist ideology.
That’s something that, struggling to make it through this cost-of-living crisis, the readers of absurdly right-wing commentators in absurdly right-wing newspapers may be forced to remember, as they receive their children’s heavily discounted chip shop meals wrapped in the pages of discarded copies of the Daily Express et cetera, sheets of treacherous newsprint that were in truth never much use for anything else.
Meanwhile, this month, just as the new teaching year began, dozens of schools were closed – with many others partially closed or facing closure – as a result of fears that crumbling concrete structures could lead to the collapse of school buildings. It also emerged that two years ago, a review led by Rishi Sunak had halved the budget for school concrete repairs. More than 100 schools – and many thousands of young people – have been adversely affected by this latest catastrophe.
The Chancellor has pledged that the money would now be found to pay for these essential repairs. The Treasury has said that no additional funds would be made available. The Prime Minister has declared it is “utterly wrong” to blame him for any of this.
The Daily Express has reported that parents are “furious” and that fears are growing that not only schools but also hospitals may be hit by this crisis.
This is the state of the UK today: One of the richest countries in the world unable – or unwilling – to afford to feed or safely educate its children. The impacts of the mounting failures of Mr. Sunak’s exhausted and indifferent administration are utterly devastating.
Rumors are rife that growing numbers of his backbenchers are lining up a bid to topple the current Prime Minister, but of course, the problem doesn’t merely lie with the man at the top. The roots of the rot run much deeper than that.
At the same time as the Tories were falling over themselves to be the first to fall apart, Sir Keir Starmer last week announced a reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet, a move which may have unwittingly taken a little heat off the Conservatives but which – far from making his top team look like a serious government in waiting – failed to inspire with much excitement even the country’s most seasoned political journalists.
One of the highlights of this spectacularly unspectacular piece of political theatre was the decision that the shadow leader of the House of Commons would swap jobs with the shadow Culture Secretary. Yes, it really was that dull.
With the government looking about as stable as a poorly maintained school gymnasium built in the 1960s, Labour seems set on taking advantage of its imminent collapse only with the dim hope that the British public, lulled into indifference by the party’s soporific personalities and policies, might somehow sleepwalk itself into voting Mr. Starmer into power.
It’s hardly an approach calculated to inspire an apprehensive nation with confidence in its future. Sir Keir’s style of politics sometimes seems like a muted apology for its own existence, and might as such be expected to provoke nothing more than a yawn and a sigh from a desperate electorate… “It's not much at all, but it’s got to be better than this.”