In the suburbs of London it was odd to read a report where the cost of civic responsibility was described as the price of avoiding revolution. The article was in a local Barnet newspaper in 1910, and the revolt referred to which it referred was the French Revolution of 1789. The reference shows the very long shadow cast by that event across European popular thought. The comment arose in a discussion about the cost of poor relief in the borough. Business and property owners were moaning about the expense of looking after the poor, and it took a female member of the group to remind them that ‘charity’ was the price they paid to retain a system from which they benefitted considerably. Today, with the rapid rise of the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign – uniting all kinds of people under the banner of unacceptable price increases – it appears that the prospect of popular agitation will force the hand of the next Prime Minister. However, rather than alter the operation of an economic system that favours the wealthy, just enough money will be dispersed to appease the masses. It remains to be seen whether we can continue as we are when an ever greater number of people fall into, or hover just above, poverty.
With what seems like a void at the heart of Government, there has been plenty of space for experts to voice their concerns about this unfolding energy crisis. Martin Lewis was clearly very angry when he spoke on Radio 4 on Friday. With appealing directness he defended ‘catastrophising’ for the very simple reason that, in the absence of Government aid, the energy price rise is a catastrophe. As someone who normally advises the less well-off about ideas to manage their funds more effectively, he had reached the point where he had nothing left to give. With a reputation built on creative solutions, the prospect of a financial dead-end for countless people had pushed Lewis to the edge.
It seems unlikely that the incoming Government will be able to replace the entire cost of rising energy prices across the economy. The suggestion so far is that low and middle income household will be supported – but it’s unclear what aid there will be for industry. This matters because without support industries will have little option other than to pass on price rises to consumers. It follows that inflation will remain high and, with below-inflation pay rises, people will be poorer. For this reason, even if there are funds to offset energy price rises, everyday life will in any event become more costly. People will have less cash, and even if gas and electricity bills remained the same, households would have to achieve savings in order to make ends meet. Heating or eating will remain a pressing question, because it is unlikely that government action will wholly mitigate the price rises that will touch every part of our economic system. The cost would be astronomical.
Macron said France and the French felt they were living through a series of crises, “each worse than the last”.Quoted in The Guardian, 24 August 2022
Last week President Macron (according to Truss, a former ally of the UK), gave a very sombre speech. While criticised in some quarters for appearing to ignore those already suffering in France, Macron heralded the ‘end of abundance’. For the middle classes upwards this is perhaps an accurate description of recent decades and a warning that these days are over. To be fair to Macron, he described recent years as those which ‘could have seemed an era of abundance’. Perhaps, as we progress through the 2020s, there will be a growing appreciation that any sense of abundance belongs to an ever-shrinking group of people.
I have written previously that, by many measures, we are living in unprecedented times. The rise of food banks will now be augmented by the opening of ‘heat banks’. Public places where people can leave cold homes and gain some warmth and company. Quite what it will be like for people unable to leave their homes, or too far from heat banks, is yet to be seen. There are a host of medical conditions that will be aggravated by the cold, and in some cases it will lead to deterioration requiring hospital care. Once again we will have exceptional winter pressures in the NHS, whether or not COVID re-emerges as a significant issue.
One of the most worrying elements of the current crisis is the way it is impacting on households where two people are in work. When once this would have achieved enough income without support, people are facing in-work poverty. Even hospitals are contemplating hosting food banks to support their staff. A major achievement of the welfare state is that it moved support away from charity and promoted it as the organised actions of a just society. People didn’t need to feel ashamed or grateful. It was what ‘society’ meant, and offering support as a basic requirement was what people should expect. When Liz Truss, who is very likely to be our next Prime Minister, spoke about not wanting to give people ‘handouts’ it flies in the face of the post-war conception of society (but is very Thatcherite). A society which perpetuates a system excluding more and more people from a basic quality of life cannot go on indefinitely. I’m not advocating revolution – but it is something that becomes ever more likely as more and more people reach the point where ‘enough is enough’.