The former prime minister David Cameron finally popped out of his shepherd’s hut last week, to inform the world, proudly, that he had been volunteering at his local food co-op, the Chippy Larder, and was about to drive to Poland with supplies they had collected.
For now, try to park the fact that refugee services across eastern Europe have repeatedly said that what they lack is cash, and they would much prefer a wire transfer to have-a-go-heroes making pointless journeys with a van full of stuff that Poland already produces. Because the more striking thing was the audacity of Cameron’s volunteering, which was swiftly pointed out by Zarah Sultana MP – food bank use went up by 2,612% while he was prime minister. There are so many ways he could have been socially useful without rubbing our nose in the poverty he had created (he could have volunteered at a dog’s home, for instance, or worked with bees) that this can only be interpreted as trolling.
But that is what a lot of life under the coalition and, later, Conservative government felt like: policies that didn’t make sense because they were cruel but not, from a government perspective, even especially thrifty. This would then be followed by a deliberate provocation – Iain Duncan Smith, saying that it was perfectly easy to live on £53 a week, actually; or Lord Freud chiming in to say that food bank use was on the rise because the food was free, and demand for free goods was potentially infinite. Seeing Cameron up to his old nose-thumbing tricks makes me think that causing outrage was one of the tactics all along.
That figure – the rise of 2,612% – doesn’t quite tell the whole story, partly because it’s a bit too huge to get your head round, but mainly because the truth is simpler. Before 2010, food banks were not a thing. Food stamps were seen as a peculiar unkindness devised by the Americans, to strip the low-waged of dignity. There were actual experiments with a copycat system in the UK for asylum seekers – where their absolutely meagre benefits were delivered on an Azure card, with which you could buy bread but not, for instance, crayons. But the general principle of social security was that if you couldn’t afford to feed your children or, for that matter, yourself, something had gone wrong.
Without a doubt, there were people before 2010 for whom things had gone wrong, who were struggling to put food on the table – the Trussell Trust food distribution charity had been going since 1997. But food banks weren’t an essential element of social security, they were an emergency stopgap for people in very difficult and, crucially, rare circumstances.
If one million people had been using them (as they were by 2015), or two-and-a-half million (as they are now), that would, previously, have been understood as the system not working. This, by the way, has been perfectly obvious to all of us, since austerity began. There was no shortage of people who looked at their policy proposals – of cutting benefits, imposing sanctions, bringing in universal credit with its huge time-lags – and joined the dots to say, this will cause real, life-changing, possibly life- threatening hardship.
The thing that took us absolutely ages to catch up with, however, was that the hardship wasn’t a bug – it was a feature. So we kept having fresh conniptions about the heartlessness, which they kept stoking with fresh insensitivities, evidently thinking: “When are these donuts going to get it? We’re no longer in the business of ‘heart’.” The Tories were much more rational, in a way, than any of their opponents. They were just doing what they do. We were like people whose corner shop had turned into an estate agent, going in every day, yelling that we couldn’t find the sausages.
Even knowing all that, even having lived the past decade, I still can’t get over the image – David Cameron, in a food bank, grinning. The brass neck of the man.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism