I know it’s a Bank Holiday and you want to relax with a glass of beer or Pimms. Please forgive this intrusion. You may get angry, feel upset, ashamed, inchoately guilty. I hope you do.
According to a new report by the esteemed Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, rates of under-five childhood deaths are higher in this country than any other nation in Europe except Malta. In 2012, 3,000 babies under the age of one died here. Here in the UK, not in recession-ravaged Greece or Spain. Older toddlers died of injuries, accidents and serious illnesses such as cancer. (The figures were worse for the US, but that should give us no cheer or comfort.)
But prominent among other causes given by the researchers were deprivation, welfare cuts, health inequalities, low birth weight and parents who smoke (the last obviously not the fault of the state). Nor is parental neglect or cruelty. But the rest expose failures of government and public apathy. Dr Christopher Murray, director of IHME, says they did not expect to find these figures in the UK, which has a relatively good record on public health.
If 3,000 children had been murdered before they reached their first birthday, or had been sexually abused, or abducted, Britons would be appalled and incensed. But with these deaths, happening silently, mainly in poor and troubled households, few give a damn.
We get no sharp TV detective coming upon a dead baby in a home without heating; Sunday magazine photographers don’t take pictures of impoverished British infants on the brink of death, and the deeply empathetic BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet isn’t dispatched to report live on these premature fatalities. Pro-lifers want to save foetuses, but seem to have no interest in saving the very young. The campaigners should fight for those born unfortunates as vociferously as they do for the unborn. To seek to control a woman’s body but not to protect helpless, voiceless children and desperate parents – that is perverse.
During the 2008 election Cameron promised that he would make ours the best, the most nurturing and the safest country in the world for children. Four years later, we are here. And the Coalition Government’s policies are pushing the jobless and working poor to ever greater wretchedness.
Last week new rules were imposed which will make job-seekers turn up to job centres every day or take up unpaid community service, at present something imposed on those who have committed non-serious crimes. By the time this Cabinet has finished with its immoral austerity programme, the poor will be worse off than those put into Victorian workhouses.
In those days, though, charities and conscientious writers made the people care by showing them what it was like to live on the streets. Good people today do all they can, but most people are hardened, feeling only contempt for those on benefits and for others who have been thrown on the scrap heaps of modern capitalism.
On Saturday, I was in Leeds watching a May Day march. Barely 200 people turned up. Most who did were obviously from the most dispossessed of communities. Women handed out leaflets against the bedroom tax and other measures. A small brass band played, and a few ageing trade unionists walked behind them, looking resolute. Shoppers shopped and some mocked or swore at the marchers. It was the saddest sight, more a funeral for a collective Britain now dead and gone and not mourned much.
We humans are not born to be hard. Graham Music is a consultant child psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman clinics. His new book, The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, establishes that children are instinctively generous and social. They only learn to become selfish and brattish. “We are losing empathy and compassion in dealing with other people in our society,” Music writes. “You live in a dog-eat-dog world and it makes sense to be highly stressed and vigilant to cope with it, but vigilance doesn’t breed kindness.” The UK has become coarse, ultra-competitive and unkind.
The problem is that the best off will not acknowledge these problems and instead blame the worst off for what feels more and more like a profoundly divided and discontented nation. It’s all the fault of them on Benefits Street, all the fault of bloody foreigners. The poor suffer ill-health and die young while the middle and upper classes are haunted by inner demons and anxieties, well concealed but gnawing away. Alcohol and drug abuse is spread through every layer of society.
It is a wonder to me that our people still make claims about being the best in the world. Britain is extraordinary in many ways and I could not live anywhere else. But we know that the inequality gap is widening, that the tax and welfare system are being corrupted for political reasons, that increasing numbers of men from the lower socio-economic classes are committing suicide, that depression and other mental illnesses are reaching epidemic levels and now, that British children are dying in their thousands. You still quiver with patriotism? Well then all is truly lost.