A week or so ago a Tory MP asserted in Parliament that there would be no need for food banks if only the poor would learn to cook and shop for themselves. Their problem, he asserted, was that in this age of pre-prepared meals and takeaways most of them had never been taught to manage their money, or to cook nutritious meals from basic ingredients. He then went on – unwisely, as it turned out – to claim that one could prepare a complete meal in this way, without bothering the food banks, or rummaging around in rubbish bins, for 30 pence a go. 30 pence! Challenged on this, attempts were made to justify it by offering recipes for nutritious 30p. meals: the most convincing of which was thought to be baked beans on toast; until it was pointed out that the costing made no allowance for heating – so it would have had to be cold beans on soggy bread. But maybe that was all the poor deserved. Another MP claimed that the simple answer to poverty was for the working poor to stop complaining and ‘get better jobs’. Again, evidence of just how out of touch the Conservatives are, at this time of recession, price inflation, poor wages and the lowest state pensions in Europe.
But it was ever thus, in always deeply socially-divided Britain. Of course our ‘upper’ classes – especially the private-school educated ones – can have no idea of how it is to live on benefits or minimum wages. (Jacob Rees-Mogg recently admitted that he had never shopped for groceries or cooked a meal for himself in his life. He seemed to take pride in it.) Blaming the poor for their poverty – rather than governments, bankers, hedge-fund investors (like Rees-Mogg) and the like – is an attitude that goes back to the cruel Victorian Poor Laws, justifying condemning the ‘undeserving’ indigent to prisons (called ‘workhouses’: ‘arbeit macht frei’?) as their only alternative to starvation and death. Workhouses are no more, unless you count the actual prisons; but the attitude that lay behind their creation survives. Some argue it was actually part of the rationale behind George Osborne’s policy of deliberate – rather than necessary – ‘Austerity’: to put the blame for it on to the heads of the people who would suffer from it the most. ‘Get on your bikes!’ Remember that piece of 1980s Tebbitry? It’s still here (in Britain; not so much in Sweden, I think): and as fetid and rank-smelling as always.