Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The ghost of Tiny Tim haunts coalition's children in need

The Government's speedy and savage assaults on the welfare state are taking us back to exploitative and deeply unequal Victorian Britain

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We mark the birth of a baby in the desert, sent by God to an impecunious and dispossessed couple, wanderers seeking refuge and finding it in a stable. It is a time to remember Jesus and the optimism delivered to earth by this infant and all other children, too. As the Bible says: "Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward" (Psalms 127).

A newborn has a brightness within, carries hope. I once watched a teenage African woman giving birth in a garage. It was winter; she was a failed asylum seeker who had been found and helped by a midwife. You couldn't get more desperate than that. But as the glowing mum held her underweight boy, she said: "He will make everything better for me, give me my life again." At Christmas we are reminded of the fragile preciousness of childhood. Maybe it isn't a bad time to ask just how youngsters are really faring in these sceptred isles today?

Sure, millions of them, including my kids, will want and get stuff they don't need but think they want and will, in spite of the recession, make merry. That means nothing. British children, as key reports have shown, are more unhappy and less well than those on the continent and countries like Canada and New Zealand. I have never really bought into the prejudice that the British love their dogs more than their offspring – this country was among the first to deal with child labour, to ensure child protection and to give the young rights to be themselves.

This happened because Dickens, Charles Kingsley, politicians and activists with a social conscience compelled their nation to do the right thing. In many parts of the world adults still feel that children are their possessions without will or entitlements. However, in the past decade our culture has again become unsafe for the young, and now the toxicity is being made and spread calculatedly by men and women elected to look after citizens and all our futures.

The youthful protesters against cuts and tuition fees cannot but feel resented, devalued and punished, first by the parliamentary act that pushes them into heavy debt if they have higher education aspirations, and then by the heavy control of their legitimate activities. They must feel they have been lied to by their country which talks big on democratic rights of resistance and yet empowers its police forces to hit and kettle peaceful demonstrators. A doctor has warned that Hillsborough-like conditions are being created, causing distress and health dangers for marchers. That story was not covered adequately in the media, another insult to their efforts to be heard, another warning that they do not matter. Nor do countless younger striplings and fledglings from disadvantaged families.

Government ministers – including the plentiful, relaxed millionaires from both parties – must, I imagine, love Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I imagine them reading it to their lovely children as the lights twinkles on the tree and choirs on the wireless sing "Hallelujah". As ritual sorrow is expressed over poor Tiny Tim, one wonders if they feel any sense of recognition, slight intimations of remorse. They should. Their speedy, savage assaults on the welfare state are taking us back to the era of exploitative and deeply unequal Victorian Britain.

Dickens' elemental fable was always more than a gripping story. It was a political text, a rebuke to the age of veracity and avarice, when those who had were coldly indifferent to the wretched around them in the sluice of an unsparing system. Today the state is Scrooge, feeling no responsibility or empathy as it slashes and burns all that sheltered the vulnerable from the worst effects of rabid capitalism.

The pain, they say, will be seen to by Big Society do-gooders waiting to cuddle freezing babies and drug addicts and make jam with the unemployed and, using brusque common sense, eradicate all hardship. OK, that's enough mocking. If it works, I promise to stand in a petticoat and eat snow outside Parliament. If not, we sceptics will have been proved right – so what? The damage will, like the poor, be with us forever.

Cameron and Osborne have contemptuously dismissed the just-published predictions by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies. Based on complex modelling and government policies, the IFS forecasts that over the next four years both relative and absolute poverty will rise for children and work-age adults – between 800,000 to 900,000 are expected to be affected. A designer who makes stupidly expensive handbags, Anya Hindmarch, now a government business champion, said recently that she quite liked recessions – or "clean-up times.

That is how this lot think. The Chancellor says airily that their cuts and "reforms" will have "... no measurable impact on child poverty over the next two years". Believe that and you really believe in a white-haired, beardy bloke comes down chimneys bringing sackfuls of pressies. The real plan was revealed by insider MP Nicholas Boles this week. It is to create a "chaotic" environment where, presumably, the fittest make it.

There is one message of good cheer just announced by Nick Clegg, desperate to again be the saviour he once was for progressives. He promises that the detention of child asylum seekers will stop, and by May next year disappear into the annals of bad history. Hard to believe him this time, however authentic he sounds. But he says he is tearing up the policy that according to the campaigning journalist Clare Sambrook, winner of the Paul Foot prize on investigative journalism, has "knowingly harmed" thousands of children. What then? These freed children only join the swell of lost others and add to the pressures on hard-pressed services starved of proper resources by the anti-state Tories of today. Will this chaos be any better for them than their cruel incarceration?

If only we had our own Dickens to fight for our defenceless young. We don't. Big writers retreat into magic or sci-fi. Perhaps they know that unlike the sentimental Victorians their words would not stir the stony hearts of the privileged in power. The hardest of times are coming – just what they planned – and they don't give a damn. How many Tiny Tims will be suffering out there this Christmas? Answers on postcards to 10 and 11 Downing St, please.


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