By Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Sunday 23 December 2012
A young man ran after me and tried in vain to get some change as I dashed through the doors of Bafta in Piccadilly on 10 December, my birthday. I was late, you see, for a dinner there, and couldn’t spare two minutes to get my purse out. Then I felt bad for not being good and now I feel revolted by both the initial selfishness and the wallowing, middle-class guilt. Doesn’t help him does it? The very next day a lovely young woman was in Bishopsgate, shivering on a freezing night, with a pink, furry, bunny hat. She told me she’d had no human conversation for three days, because though some did drop pennies in her cup, nobody spoke to her.
At a party, I told a woman about this begging girl in a bunny hat. A response came back instantly: “Did you ask her why she was poor?” No, I didn’t. I saw she was pale, sitting on an icy pavement, and that was enough. The woman, herself kept by a rich man, narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips, swung her diamond earrings and declaimed. In sum, these people deserved no mercy. She had heard Frank Field on BBC’s Any Questions? describing the worthless workless who didn’t take up jobs done by migrants and so were choosing poverty. (This was her report and interpretation of what Field said.) I explained that thousands of migrants, and non-migrants too, worked in pitifully low-paid jobs and so fear eviction, have bare kitchen cupboards, no heating, awful debts. I know that because I have seen how they live. Many disabled people are in the same state. Those eyes tightened further to look like knife edges just as the guests were starting to sing Christmas carols round the piano. I left, but I’m sure nasty Mrs Rich joined in merrily. As the food critic AA Gill observes: “The distinction between the deserving poor and undeserving poor is a luxury of the comfortably well off.”
A capitalist Christmas
So this is Christmas. And what have we done to defend the abject poor from the loathsome Coalition Government and its policies? If it weren’t for food banks, soup kitchens, charities and volunteers, we would have even more desperation than we do now. The people helping the destitute are living the ideals of Christianity. Three food banks open every week because so many need basic sustenance, a proportion in work, the rest not. These “hidden poor” are in Kensington, Middle England, as well as in the usual wrung out, hopeless, dystopian urban neighbourhoods. Homeless beggars are everywhere and instead of looking down, they call out, plaintively, shrilly.
The only lesson learnt from the Nativity story (and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol too) is that presents must be given and received, stuff none of us needs or even wants. Three wise men gave to Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. So now we all must buy, buy, buy. Bearded Brad Pitt selling us Chanel perfume is our own wise man; and the Tiffany boxes that will be opened tomorrow are Christian offerings.
What a stain all this is upon that great faith and its beginnings. Christianity is dying not only because people would rather shop than go to church on Sundays, but because it is not longer true to itself and has sold its soul to capitalism. (Other major faiths have done the same. Showy, gaudy Saudi Arabia is the keeper of Islam.)
Let’s look at Joseph, Mary and her blessed baby through the eyes of Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith, head girl and head boy in the Cabinet. Good Joseph, an honest carpenter, was an asylum seeker, dependent on other people’s goodwill; Mary was an unmarried mother, one of those feckless, irresponsible girls; and Jesus was a poetic dreamer and worse, a NEET (not in employment, education or training), a drain on society. The Sun would expose the family and Duncan Smith et al would soon run them out of town. Thankfully, they were around in another time when they were given shelter. The poet of God was listened to and followed.
I know thousands of benefits claimants milk the system. Ten times as many middle-class folk cheat the taxman, take universal benefits they don’t need and some profit from suspect businesses. As a taxpayer I don’t begrudge benefit swindlers. But I do resent public money used to bail out dodgy bankers, to wage wars, to pay off victims of abuse in Iraq by some of our soldiers, and to provide the sweet tax benefits given to the already loaded.
His own advisors have told Duncan Smith that his planned benefit regime is too severe and will make people turn to prostitution and crime. The Social Security Advisory Committee is concerned that such state punishment will mean a sector of the population becomes completely dislocated from mainstream society, living like creatures at the very bottom of the dark depths of the sea.
After Victorian reformers changed attitudes, compassion grew for the impecunious. Now they are scorned and maligned, by those who have and those who haven’t. Christianity is a faith of conscience, which cares for the less fortunate. In the UK, the original script has been torn up and the poor are now scum, sinners, the enemy within. If Jesus is watching, he must be weeping.