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

Related Topics

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.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Content Leader

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role requires a high level...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Robert Fisk
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent