Deborah Orr: Poverty has a cause we're not confronting

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:44

Proper Conservatives are at last warming to David Cameron, after he tipped up in Glasgow East and informed some of the fattest and laziest and poorest people in Britain that it was time they recognised that it was their own fault that they were fat and lazy and poor. Supporters see these views as a reassertion, at last, of classic Conservative political values, emphasising the primacy of the individual, and the primacy of bad individual choices as the creator of society's ills.

It is a curious fact that in just about all long-established cities in the northern hemisphere the individual choice of the fattest, laziest and poorest people leads them mysteriously to set up home in the east. The best explanation anyone can come up with for this universal clustering of the non-affluent, is that prevailing trade winds have always ensured that rank smells tend to drift in an easterly direction.

So, even if you are not fat and lazy, but have somehow contrived to be poor anyway, you tend not to be a west end girl, or boy. And there you are, annoyingly far away from the monied people who might make you richer, and living cheek by quivering jowl with the fat, lazy people who won't.

And there we have one very solid example of how sometimes individual choice is very much affected by the basic nature of the natural world. Even the wind, historically, is against those with limited economic options, and encourages them to gather together in communities of want that are generally, rather than individually, poor.

This little reminder of some of the ways in which humans respond to the world as we find it, as well as making it what it is, is not, by any means, a refutation of Cameron's central point. Actually, bold as Cameron's challenge to political correctness might seem, I fear I am disappointed. He has not gone far enough to impress me. If he really wants to illustrate his desire to call a spade a spade, Cameron ought to name another individual characteristic that leads free people into making poor choices.

Neither left nor right any longer feels it is polite to suggest that sometimes people find themselves at a disadvantage because their intellectual capacity is comparatively limited. In fact, such is the taboo on this subject that I amaze myself by bringing it up. Yet it is something that needs to be discussed.

One can see why the right are unwilling to broach the subject. It might sound tough and uncompromising to make a speech suggesting that fat people or lazy people or poor people bring their misfortunes on themselves. But asserting that it is your own fault if you are, to use plain-speaking Cameroonian parlance, "stupid" is, let's face it, not nice, or true or helpful.

Yet whether you want to blame the current unedifying state of our society on 10 years of Labour, or want to go further back and kid yourself that 10 years was not enough to make a dent in the social consequences of Thatcherism, I think that you would be churlish indeed to assert that whoever set the ball rolling, and whoever dribbled it to the here and now, the 30 years we have just spent "managing the transition to a skills-based economy" have not resulted in happy and universal inclusivity.

The bare fact is that not everybody is intellectually equipped to make for themselves a place in such an economy. You may express this secret knowledge in a lefty way, by asserting that those factories should have remained open just to keep those now-drifting people gainfully occupied. Or you may express them in a righty way, by saying that the less fulsomely endowed should simply and meekly accept their limitations and work hard for a minimum wage that they cannot live on.

But you cannot express those thoughts in an explicit way, or all hell will break loose. The liberal left is as hung up on individual choice as the conservative right. The right is furious about what they see as the havoc wreaked by allowing people to have social choices, just as furious as it is about the economic "choices" it sees the welfare state as having promoted. Yet on both sides of the divide there is a blind assertion that everybody is as well equipped to think, weigh up, research and choose as everybody else, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Sometimes a study will briefly emerge that illustrates, for example, that the freedom to choose the sort of family structure you want, rebounds worst on those who are poor, and their children. Regularly, statistics will suggest that the educationally challenged most often end up in trouble with the law. Universally, it is accepted that "the poor" make bad nutritional choices (that's why they are fat). But it is not considered comme il faut to venture that these things also suggest that perhaps there really is a loose but genuine correlation between being poor and being actually less intellectually capable.

Of course, like all generalisations, this one is dangerous. Plenty of people are bright but poor, and the right agrees with the left on this, even if it signals its agreement with an unremitting focus on grammar schools. Plenty of people are rich and stupid as well, which presumably is why they cannot see that their focus on grammar schools is a focus on helping the most capable the most, and therefore the least capable the least.

If they are not looked after by their family, then the less bright, it is surely safe to assume, are often excluded from society because of their inability to make intelligent choices. Our refusal to look sympathetically on lack of intelligence as a real encumbrance in the modern world – or sometimes even to admit that it exists – is unfair on those who labour under that disadvantage.

Not that the less bright are queuing up to be helped. A recent survey showed that 90 per cent of the population believed themselves to be of above average intelligence. Although they are hotly contested, estimates of intelligence breakdown suggest that about 25 per cent of the population is above average, about 50 per cent is average, and about 25 per cent is below average. So, nearly everybody thinks they are pretty bright, and quite a number of those people are wrong.

I suppose this mass delusion can be viewed as a triumph of comprehensive education, in which it is considered a dreadful thing to allow people to know that they are not so mentally adept. It's a pity society cannot find a way of assuring people that there is no shame in being average, or even below average, and that this need be no bar to a useful and productive life. Sadly, however, our refusal even to talk about the phenomenon is proof in itself that we cannot bring ourselves to be that accepting or that accommodating.

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