“When did we become such a mean-spirited little country?” Letter to the editor

Dear West Country Voices,

As I came through passport control at Edinburgh Airport last week, I saw a sign saying: “Welcome to GREAT Britain.” I had 40 minutes to look at it as we threaded our way slowly towards passport control. There had already been a 20-minute delay when the plane landed, because the right kind of steps were not immediately available. And there was a further one-hour delay after passport control while we waited for our bags.

It was the “GREAT Britain” bit that irritated me: a cheap slogan, a piece of public relations, that bears absolutely no relation to reality. Britain may have been great once, but it certainly isn’t now. It has become a mean-spirited place, where those in power revel in privilege and prosperity while treating the struggles of the less fortunate with contempt.

As long ago as 2018, the UN’s special rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, said that government cuts had left 20 per cent of the population in poverty and 1.5m actually destitute – and that was before implementation of Brexit and the current cost of living crisis. His report said that “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instil discipline where it is least useful.” He was right.

Just today I read about a man with anxiety, depression, COPD, and vascular disease who was passed fit to work by the Department of Work and Pensions. His benefits were stopped, and he had to rely on handouts and foodbanks for a full year until his appeal was heard. He got his benefits back but there was no compensation for the hardship he had suffered in the interim.

The government’s own figures show that 41 per cent of people claiming universal credit are in work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claims that 68 per cent of families living in poverty have at least one member of the family working. They are obviously taking Boris Johnson’s advice that the best way to escape poverty is to work. It’s good discipline.

Nurses are still waiting to hear what their pay rise will be this year. The government said in February – before the current spike in inflation – that it would be “up to 3 per cent”, but they have heard nothing since. The railway workers are striking because they have been offered two per cent, with an extra one per cent if they accept redundancies and “changes in working practices” which is code for longer hours and more responsibility. Even criminal barristers are going on strike: there is so little money available for legal aid that some of them are actually working for less than the minimum wage. MPs, by the way, recently gave themselves 2.7 per cent, bringing their basic pay to £84,144 – to which they can add allowances to cover the cost of their office, their staff, and a place to live in London.

Something else I read about was a Tory fundraising dinner, where someone paid £37,000 for a shooting weekend and someone else paid £120,000 to have dinner with Johnson, May, and Cameron. And there were the stories about Boris Johnson trying to get Carrie a £100,000-a-year job as his Chief of Staff when he was at the Foreign Office and proposing that a donor fork out for a £150,000 treehouse for his son in the grounds of Chequers. Neither came off, but the fact that he tried speaks volumes.

Oh, yes. At the same time, there are plans to lift the (not exactly stringent) controls on the pay of directors and non-executive directors. If they are allowed to earn more – so the story goes – it will attract more investment.

And there is the ongoing saga of how we treat asylum seekers. At one time, we were going to have an inflatable barrier in the Channel to keep them at bay. Then we were going to push them back out to sea. Now, we are going to send them to Rwanda. And those that are not going to Rwanda are going to be electronically tagged. The plane that didn’t take off the other week is supposed to have cost £500,000. And the fact that it didn’t take off has led Tory MPs to stamp their feet and call for the UK to scrap the Human Rights Act and leave the European Court of Human Rights. In fact, the ECHR did not say that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was illegal: it simply said that the government should wait for the outcome of a judicial review before doing anything – but we can’t have foreigners telling us what to do, can we?

And if foreigners try and tell us what to do – which is what the government claims is happening with the Northern Ireland Protocol and with steel tariffs – Boris Johnson and the xenophobes simply throw their toys out the pram and find a lawyer who will say that ignoring the agreements they signed is not a breach of international law.

How did Britain become such a nasty, mean-spirited little country? Things have come to a head under Boris Johnson but – to be fair – the first signs were there before. As long ago as 1989, Mrs Thatcher characterised people claiming benefits as “spongers”. It was Tony Blair’s government which stopped asylum seekers from working when they arrived in Britain. And in 2014, David Cameron froze benefits and tax credits for two years, knowing that it would hurt the poorest third of the population most. But it has all got so much worse recently. The Telegraph, the Times, the Mail, the Express, and the Sun – our glorious right-wing press – don’t help, but the real issue is a change in attitude.

Forget the redistribution of wealth, today’s objective is to ensure that those who have wealth are able to keep it, so they can invest it and earn more.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s. Nostalgia aside, it wasn’t a great time. Things were far from perfect. There was poverty; there was unemployment; there was war in Northern Ireland. But there was more compassion around, more idealism – and a belief that society existed for the benefit of the people in it. That belief is long gone.

Laurence Bristow-Smith