The quiet days between Christmas and the resumption of regular life at the beginning of a new year have a peculiarly dreamy quality in the northern hemisphere. The headlong rush of events slows, the usual rhythms of life are suspended, and new – or the absence of normal - experiences punctuate the short days with moments of difference that often lead to mixed, unusual, feelings like relief, stress or uncertainty. The bacchanalia of December, thoroughly co-opted in western culture by the gods of consumerism, give way to acceptance that this is the dull, fallow time of year, a time for sombre reflection rather than action. January lies ahead, a month when the elderly often die in increasing numbers. The countryside is bare, and weeks of cold, wet and dark are inevitable, while farmers fret about dwindling animal fodder and prospects for the coming year in both the fields and the auction mart. The response our culture encourages is a renewed sense of resolve to meet winter’s challenge of endurance by aiming for transformation, spring’s reward. New Year’s resolutions are the ritual expression of a willingness to face the future with a degree of hope for a good outcome.
But 2013 in the UK opens with a sense of dread, rather than resolve, for many. The background is an awareness that ‘austerity’ is set to bite even harder. Planned cuts – the big benefit changes in particular - are on the way despite continual tinkering by the government in the face of some awkward politics and policy appraisal. Chancellor George Osborne conceded in the Autumn Statement in early December that it is actually going to take twice as long as the coalition originally planned to eliminate the fiscal deficit. The squeeze on public services will last for at least a decade in total and has been described as ‘eye-watering’ by the health care think tank the Nuffield Trust.
The suspension of normal routines over the festive season added to the creation of a new mood of anxiety. With the distractions of daily life turned down, some grim realities at both home and abroad have penetrated the thin veneer of cheer. Extreme weather flooding huge areas of the south of England, rising food prices in the shops, more public spending cuts and job losses to come, the nail-biting ‘fiscal cliff’ scenario in the US, the horrific rape and murder of a woman on a bus in India, even the good news story of the partial recovery and release from hospital of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban three months ago for supporting the education of girls, all fuel the sense of a world that is topsy turvy and conflict-ridden, and increasingly difficult to control or live in. Where are peace, goodwill and harmony to be found in these dark days? Social justice, equality and progress towards a sustainable world seem more distant than spring’s promise of sunshine and fresh growth. Nature will do as nature will, but human efforts follow no rules that lead on to better life, even though we make the rules.
What seems clearer than ever from the dreamy days is that our leaders, and the systems they work within, are full of contradictions that tie them and us in knots. Here are some random examples. Some are farcical: bedrooms really are involved.
The Church of England, which recently voted to stop women becoming bishops, announced early in January that gay men, happily and seriously committed to their loved ones in civil partnerships – married in normal parlance - can become bishops so long as they don’t have sex.
In Cumbria, in remote Ennerdale, where there are no roads, only forests, a beautiful lake and some of the most iconic mountains in the Lake District, there is a re-wilding programme aimed at reducing human intervention even more. But local people are fearful that councillors might be preparing to agree later in January to investigations for a nuclear waste dump in the valley.
The government’s changes to what was a previously crucial, popular and universal element of public support for children’s standard of living, Child Benefit, mean that at least 200,000 parents have given up the support because they will otherwise have to start paying more tax and tackling a complex, self-assessment administrative process.
Newcastle’s Labour council is planning to totally cut – that is eliminate – any funding to the arts in the city as a response to the reduction in its funding from government, even though the arts impart confidence and identity to people and places and are an important part of a creative, forward-looking economy.
In my home town of Maryport, in Cumbria’s Allerdale constituency, the most imposing building on the main shopping street, a fine, Victorian red sandstone structure which was the main bank in the town providing services for over a century to many small businesses and residents, is to become a betting shop. The bank closed last year. Small businesses, as everywhere, are struggling. Allerdale has some of the poorest areas in the UK. Concerns about the proliferation of gambling in poor communities is rising up the political agenda. No-one wants another betting shop in the town, but they feel they have no choice – at least this imposing building will stay in use amongst many other commercial premises that are empty.
One of the most glaring elements of the topsy turvy world of Britain in 2013 is the success with which the coalition government has framed the debate about welfare reform. While the financial sector remains inadequately regulated, the banks hold onto their (our) money, the economy is in recession, and the rich stay very rich, the jobless and poor are successfully demonised for claiming benefits. George Osborne may have been booed at the Paralympics last summer but his notorious remark about shift workers going off to work while their neighbours on benefits sleep soundly with their curtains closed clearly strikes a chord.
Plans to cap national benefits at well below inflation rises for the next few years – facing a parliamentary vote on January 8 - or to start charging the poor council tax, as many councils are expected to do, play into and on the fears of those on low wages or fixed incomes like pensioners. Despite Labour’s attempts to link the tax rates and reliefs for the rich to the politics of ‘fairness’ and to show that those in work who receive benefits like tax credit are being badly hit by the coalition’s welfare reforms, it is the coalition, pitting the working poor against the jobless poor, who seem to be winning the argument. We are invited to make the indolent poor the focus of our winter of discontent, as Barbara Gunnell has pointed out elsewhere on oD. When spring comes, and the yearly cap of £26,000 per household on benefits begins to be implemented, the real consequences in homelessness, internal displacement, child poverty, domestic violence and other social ills will become apparent.
Meanwhile, the structural problems in the real economy carry on and the disconnect between reducing, or getting people off, benefits and job creation – which is not usually done by ex-benefits claimants – is ignored. The economy is flatlining, with negative growth in 2012, and barely a whisper of improvement predicted for 2013. There is even talk in some quarters of a triple dip recession. Meaningful, secure, well-paid, full-time jobs are in short supply and the bizarre thing is that, despite the scorn people increasingly feel for claimants, this is widely recognised and understood, particularly when the lamentable record of the government’s own expensive Work Programme is exposed.
This is the bleak midwinter, and the mid-point of this government’s tenure. As a sharp understanding of the banks’ role in helping to create the topsy turvy world we are living in retreats down the years, the politics becomes ever more important. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is relaunching as a bulwark against the strains it is under, with UKIP challenging on the one hand and on the other, the various wings of their own parties. We need to see much clearer and tougher analysis and critique from the Labour opposition. As huge swathes of Britain are beggared and left bewildered by the upheavals and moralising that we have already endured, and placated by scapegoating of the poor and other groups like immigrants, Labour must dig deep to set things straight. Gesture politics in Parliamentary votes will not be enough. We need to see the coalition feeling the heat.
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