Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Is there no alternative to this tale of two nations?

Reaganomics and Thatcherism instigated the shift away from social cohesion to individualism


The Olympic flame is on its way to fantabulous London and the Queen's Jubilee should get us all jiving in parks and eating lots of iced cake. Visitors and the loaded, devoted Royalists, sports fans and privileged politicos are just so, so excited. They can't wait. I come to spoil the party. The merriment feels impolitic and uncivil, callous too. Buried evidence of destitution and hopelessness crawls out from under official assurances (and excuses) and PR spin. Today we learn that calls to Mind, the mental-health charity, have risen by 100 per cent. Meanwhile, new research by the Church Urban Fund finds that in parts of Manchester and Liverpool, average life expectancy is 70 and 65 per cent of children live in poverty, while in parts of Surrey and Berkshire, average life expectancy is 85 and only 1 per cent of children live in poor households. As shocking as the statistics is the indifference of all of us who own homes, easily pay the bills, have savings, and who can, in hard times, still have very good times.

Of course, many of us are feeling a little squeezed and moan about that incessantly, unlike the truly, provably deprived. The paralysis of poverty takes over the mind, body and soul. Few give a damn about these wasted citizens. Or their children.

Instead, Alistair Darling, yet again, comes out defending Fred Goodwin of RBS, that unfortunate millionaire who lost his knighthood for not doing his job well enough. And billionaire dictators dine with the Queen.

Last week I had lunch with a wealthy, intriguing, sensitive Tory in a packed, upmarket fish restaurant where the recession was further than the farthest, unseen orb. The very same day I went to a small flat where people lived in fouler conditions than I ever saw in Uganda, my birthplace. Earlier in the month I spent half a day with the phenomenal Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, a multidisciplinary charity trying to save thousands of children from going under. They see severe psychological and emotional problems and kids with simple physical needs, like breakfast.

Politicians of all shades have brought us to this. Reaganomics and Thatcherism instigated the shift away from social cohesion to individualism. New Labour proudly continued that ideology and the Coalition fanatically pushes it further still. In the Queen's speech, they promised they would make it easier for bosses to sack workers without all that bother of tribunals. Their benefits rearrangements are cutting down the most disadvantaged. A disabled woman, Merry Cross, whom I met last year, emails to describe the iniquities of the work-capability assessments which are often so ruthless and senseless you imagine assessors must have been ordered to impose cuts without due care. Suicides among the disabled, she tells me, are rising fast.

We have become like divided Victorians again but without the conscience. Pamphleteers and church leaders energetically defended the poor back then. Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and Tory PM Benjamin Disraeli wrote novels explicitly to stir up national guilt and action. In Disraeli's Sybil, or The Two Nations, Walter Gerard, a working-class radical, describes his country thus: "Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, are not governed by the same laws." Disraeli detested the exploitation of workers by the laissez-faire capitalist system. His political descendents want that laissez-faire back.

Even more outrageous is the way the dispossessed are blamed and hated by those in their localities. Many of those we demean and exclude then do turn feral and beastly. The other day, walking in a tough district, teens started spitting and racially abusing me and threw some scary missiles. I hated them at that moment, but no child is born that way. We must remember that and compel our elected representatives to understand we don't want economic apartheid.

Danny Dorling writes in his book, Injustice: "Social inequality within rich countries persists because of a continued belief in the tenets of injustice, and it can be a shock for people to realise that there might be something wrong with much of the ideological fabric of the society we live in." Slave owners, he argues, believed there was no alternative to slavery; so it is with the modern capitalist model.

There is nothing normal or good about living in such a dreadfully cleaved nation. The Victorians understood that better than we modern Elizabethans. Goodwin is in the list of the 60 most influential Britons of this horrible age, thus confirming that the establishment is determined to carry on sucking up to the rich. One has to ask if Team GB is fast losing its claim to be either civilised or an advanced nation.


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