Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Don't be fooled. We're not all in this together

Health inequalities today between the richest and poorest are worse than they were in the 1920s


It would be terribly intrusive but boy wouldn't we like to know the pre-Christmas spending habits of the Camerons, Osbornes and the terrifically jovial, blond Johnson clan? Shop assistants, sadly, are not whistleblowers, but we can assume the puddings and pies will not come from Aldi, ale will not replace champagne and there is little chance members of these great houses will be spotted at New Look. That's bitchy. Maybe, enthused by Kirstie Allsopp, loaded queen of crafts, the genteel Laydees have decided to gift down and are knitting bracelets for diamond charms. It's all relative, isn't it?

The Queen, for example, faces a pay freeze until 2015 – only £30m per annum. See how frugally she lives – storing food in Tupperware boxes, turning the lights off in all the thousand and one rooms she owns. And this is how we repay her. Must be why she is cheering herself up with a new filly for £500,000, paid for from her own incalculable private fortune. Kate is to have her own new palace and her sister Pippa is not doing badly either. Penguin has, apparently, given her an advance of £400,000 for a book on party piffle. In the top-range glossy mags there are watches, handbags and coats costing so much, each one would feed a family for months.

OK so they have it and flaunt it, as they have through history. The rich, like the poor, are always with us. But, until now, nobody pretended that thieving bankers with their bonuses still rolling in, and tax-avoiding businessmen and politicians from hideously privileged backgrounds suffer in bad times as much as the lone mum bringing up her kids on benefits, the disabled widower in care and the man in the cornershop open day and night making a hard living. But, they say we are "all in this together" and they are honourable men.

This slogan is a cover for policies which calculatedly seek to "sacrifice" a section of the population and to wreck the welfare state. Inequality is not only an unfortunate result of the economic crisis, it is the ideological tenet of the right, as unshakeable as any fundamentalist religious belief. The haves are the saved, God loves them; the have-nots are damned and can expect no pity or salvation. We have witnessed the fervour of this cult in power. There is to be no Tobin tax to get money out of people who can pay but just won't. They hate public service workers even though in that sector there is NO tax dodging. Women will suffer disproportionately and so too those with vulnerabilities. Unemployment is rising mercilessly. But, they say, we are in this together, and they are honourable men.

Except we are not and they are not. Research shows incontrovertibly that the impact of austerity is being borne by those who are least able to endure the effects. Cambridge academics, Michael Kitson, Ron Martin and Peter Tyler, are in no doubt that "the burden of fiscal retrenchment will fall on social protection. It will be the poor, the unemployed and sick who are feeling the pain. We are not all in it together".

Health inequalities between the richest and poorest are worse than they were in the 1920s, says the BMJ. It was not ever thus. In 2008 the OECD praised Britain for "the remarkable reduction in poverty" that had been achieved in the previous eight years. The reversal has been fast and vicious. The result is disorder on the part of some who are lawless and others who are dislocated from society. The state in turn, including the judiciary, reacts with even more viciousness. Much more of that hides in the wings, breathing heavily, waiting for the next flare up.

Last week I saw at London's Tricycle Theatre The Riots, a powerful dramatisation of testimonies collected by the writer Gillian Slovo. An after show discussion followed, led by the feisty criminal defence solicitor Jude Lanchin, MP John McDonnell, one of our most principled politicians, and myself. Most people in the audience certainly didn't believe rioters were such criminals or the mendacious riff of shared pain. They were full of dread.

But not the rest of the country it seems. A survey by the Office for National Statistics found Brits are really irrepressibly jolly. Labour's Lord Layard is the LSE happiness guru who does not believe there is a link between equality and happiness even though there is ample evidence to the contrary. His soft fluff appeals and he must be smiling from ear to ear. It's the Blitz spirit they tell me, Brits grin and bear it when darkness settles over their isles. Yes, I've seen the movies, read the books, admired that stoicism. But today's dopey smiles are hardly that.

I am not denying the reality of the recession and do believe the reform of pensions has to happen. But government-planned injustice and inequality are unacceptable whatever the crisis. But why listen to me? I am just grumpy. Go to all those cheerfully going about their lives. Till the tears come. Even happy clappy Layard expects the laughs will stop when the frost really bites. People will then realise we were never in this together.


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