Monday, November 28

Liz Truss, we see the Dickensian world you dream of – and we refuse to go there | michael rosen

WAtching the clips of the Tory party conference reminded me of the characters and phantoms that Charles Dickens put before us nearly 180 years ago in A Christmas Carol. In fact, there was something worthy of the fiction-writer in the characters and phantoms that the leader, ministers and delegates put before us at the conference itself.

What an array of enemies we now have to look out for: the anti-growth coalition (whoever they are), people who arrive in dinghies (much more dangerous than people who arrive in planes), the north London metropolitan elite (apologies to south Londoners who feel excluded), social Marxists (I always thought the enemy was “cultural Marxists” so I’m not sure if these Marxists are the same or worse), people who think that benefits should be linked to prices (they seem to be the enemy within), the BBC (but not David Attenborough, presumably), anti-British historians (you know who you are), university teachers who teach Harry Potter (blush! That’s me: guilty as charged, ma’am), and – weighed down with centuries of school-book blood, sweat and menace – “the mob”.

What a useful word: in one short, sharp syllable, living people with minds and feelings are transformed into Bastille-storming, irrational hooligans who one moment worship Caesar and the next are glad that he’s dead. As the non-mob of Conservative party delegates applauded this mention of the mob, they must have turned their minds away from the fact that it was a woman saying the word, whose place at the podium had been secured more than a hundred years previously by the Suffragette mob.

Meanwhile something much more real, yet seemingly of less interest to managers of events in the conference hall, has been gathering momentum outside. Millions of people have noticed that the last 12 years have not been kind to them, and that next year is likely to be even more unkind. What they earn has bought them less and less. What they’re going to earn is going to leave them hungry and cold.

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It’s worth remembering that politicians told us that such deprivations would be worth it. In 2015, Nick Clegg (remember him?), told us that his Tory coalition partners wanted to take £12bn away from public sector workers to clear the “budget deficit”. Ah, what blissful days they were, when all a government needed to do to terrify workers into earning less was shake its gory locks and say “the deficit!” That bit of phantom-raising has become a little more difficult to do, when we hear how the great conjuror at the Bank of England can pull £65bn out of its hat. “There is no magic money-tree,” Theresa May warned us. What is it, then? A magic money-box?

Meanwhile, step by step, ballot by ballot, hundreds of thousands of workers, are taking (or are about to take) industrial action. I should declare an interest: I’m a part-time university lecturer, and my union is voting right now. I’m guessing that for all that talk of growing feet, portions getting bigger, the economy “driving forward”, it’s action being taken by nurses, railway workers, postal workers, teachers and many more that is going to be where the center of gravity lies in the coming months.

Worryingly for the government, we talk to each other. When people have no strength other than their ability to act together at the same time, it follows that the more of us who come together, the stronger we are. Some old phantoms are being taken out of the cupboard and dusted off: “You’re inconveniencing the public” (forgetting that strikers are the public too); and “Your wages are higher than those poor people’s over there” (as if not going on strike will magically raise those poor people’s wages).

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And talking of old dusty phantoms, let’s not forget Dickens. For all its cosy, Christmas-puddingy feel, A Christmas Carol has something to say to us right now. When I hear even a whiff of the idea that Britain is overcrowded or that there are too many people on benefits, I see Scrooge and the ghost of Malthus looming up. Two pleasant, portly gentlemen talk to Scrooge and remind him: “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full force, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

The gentlemen press Scrooge for a contribution to a fund for the poor.

Scrooge comes back with: “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Why does this passage echo down the years to us? When we are asked to look askance at people on benefits as if they are robbing us of our income, or watch a clip of a conference delegate saying that if people aren’t earning enough, they should go and get a better job, can we hear Scrooge? Not so much because he is the archetypal miser but because, as Dickens took pains to point out in this passage, he was highly political. A section of the population was “surplus”. (Please excuse me a bitter aside as I admit that the thought did cross my mind in the midst of the Covid epidemic that there were some who thought that old people were surplus.)

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Scrooge is also quite the class warrior. Bob Cratchit, his clerk, is no union militant. It’s Scrooge who opens the matter of Bob’s wages:

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Scrooge.

“If quite convenient, sir.”

“It’s not convenient,” said Scrooge, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound?”

The clerk smiled faintly.

“And yet,” said Scrooge, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”

The clerk observed that it was only once a year.

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning.”

How alert Dickens was to how people’s labour-power was priced at the minute! Every dispute today over working hours, overtime, breaks and leave are a repeat of this moment.

But as we know, Scrooge sees the phantom of his dead self, unloved, scorned and rejected, and he is reformed:

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, …“I am about to raise your salary!”

That speech should have come with a warning: “This is a story. It won’t happen in real life. If you want to raise your salary, look to yourselves.”

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