The war being waged on the poor right now is no World War Two. It lacks the vast sprawling set piece battles like Midway or Stalingrad. Instead it is much more akin to the Cold War: a long, endlessly vicious conflict played out in hidden corners the eyes of the world seldom get to see.
The nearest thing we have seen to a Stalingrad has of course been the much hated Welfare Reforms. One by one these have been placed on the floor of the House of Commons and one by one they have been sent out across the country with a majority. Watching the likes of the Bedroom Tax being passed into law has been similar to watching a group of acne riddled Brownshirts kicking an old Jewish shop keeper on a pavement glittering with broken glass. Vicious, sure it has been vicious. But the mood music playing away in the background has always hammered home the fact that the beating is well and truly deserved. In any mid 1930's German town, the message was loud and clear – you life is shit and the reason is all down to those lousy scheming Jewish bastards. So it's OK to give them a kicking, right? Is the Bedroom Tax so very different? Struggling to make your mortgage payment this month? Well that is because all of these nasty skiving poor people are hoovering up all of tax you are paying. So it's fine and dandy to give them a proper kicking, right? It's what the shirking swine deserve.
The Welfare Reforms are the war on the poor right out there in the open for all the world to see. Brazen if you like. At risk of flogging the Cold War comparison to death, they are the equivalent of Reagan and Thatcher deploying their Cruise missiles and pointing them straight at the Kremlin. There was nothing secret about it. Instead it was all done right in the face of the Politbureau. When all was said and done, that was the whole point.
All the while, the real bread and butter brutality of the Cold War was being played out every single day in a hundred forgotten corners of the world where the TV cameras never came close to telling the story. CIA funded death squads quietly filled up mass graves in Nicaragua whilst Soviet Hind helicopters turned Afghan villages into rubble whilst South African punishment battalions deployed medieval levels of cruelty in Angola.
I guess that's probably enough of 'the war on the poor'/Cold War compare and contrast. Time to run through a couple of examples of how the war on the poor is being waged far from the public view. One is tiny, one is massive and both come from the same nasty stable.
The tiny one first.
I heard about this from one of our long term food parcel guys. No real names. I will call him Boris for obvious reasons. When Boris first came in a few years ago, the idea of him becoming a regular would have seemed laughable. He was about fifty and he had always worked. He had his shit together and getting a job was only a matter of time. So he filled out his job applications and he knocked doors. No big deal. He had plenty of experience of getting a job. However, he didn't fill in enough application forms to keep the Job Centre happy so they nailed him with a one month sanction. No big deal. He was perfectly confident that he would find a job which would render the sanction null and void.
He didn't find a job. Instead he kept on getting sanction after sanction. And it started to take a toll on him. He was spending too much time on his own in an unheated flat with no power. Cold and dark, dark and cold. Every day became a story of killing time through empty hours. Finding a bit of warmth care of hot food providers. And of course he started to keep the kind of company he would never normally have kept. Slowly but slowly the grinding misery of his new life broke him down. Piece by piece. He stopped shaving and his clothes started to look like a tramp's clothes. He drifted over an invisible line and joined the ranks of the unemployable. And the sanctions kept on coming as surely as cold, dark night followed cold, dark day.
I remember chatting with Boris one day at the counter. By now the bones of his skull were in danger of bursting through his grey skin. If Speilberg were ever to come to Dumfries to cast for Schindler's List Two, my man would be hired on just like that. He shook his head in wonder at the sheer extent to which his life had become so utterly crap. He told me how he would kill all of those empty hours. He would walk and walk through the streets of the town centre collecting docked fags from the ashtrays on the top of the council's bins. Once he had a carrier bag filled up, he would take them home and gather in all the tobacco. And then he would smoke it. He said he would never in a million years have believed he would ever become a guy who would spend his days collecting dockers. But that is what he had become. A guy who spent his days collecting dockers. In a carrier bag.
He was in last week. He doesn't have the energy any more to get angry about things. He is too broken up to get angry. He is a poster boy for utter resignation. He told me that the council had buggered up his quest for dockers. He told me that council guys had been instructed to go around all the bins in the town centre to pour water on the docked fags.
This seemed to me to be a whole new level of gratuitous nastiness. Fair enough, it isn't exactly a good look for a town to have lads like Boris haunting the high street in the pursuit of dockers. But come on, it isn't like it will put off tourists or inward investment or recruiting doctors for the hospital. Instead it seemed as fine an example of kicking a man down as I had ever seen. So I called up the leader of the SNP group. I mean, bloody hell Andy. Surely this is out of order? Don't you think? There aren't necessarily all that many councilors you can call up with this kind of complaint, but Andy is one of them. He is one of the good guys. He got it. But he boxed clever and fired off an angry e mail to the relevant department asking if they really thought this was a good use of scarce human resources in this era of austerity? They replied pretty sharpish. Not us, Guv. Nobody here has issued any such instruction. Honest. They were no doubt telling the truth. Instead a lone wolf council employee had taken it upon themselves to use their authority to indulge themselves in the pleasure of kicking downed men.
Once upon a time the front page headlines of 'Der Sturmer' made it seem to the Brownshirt bully boys that it was OK to kick old Jews on the pavement. No doubt the poor hating tabloids of today had the very same effect on the guy to decided it was perfectly OK to pour water on ashtrays full of dockers.
And now the big thing.
It might be wicked and calculating. Or maybe it is just a horrible accident. The result is the same either way. The result is the mass screwing over of the poor.
It goes something like this.
We demand our politicians defend our NHS. But our politicians daren't ask us to pay more tax to make such a thing realistically possible. Instead they try to convince us they are miracle men who can conjure up billions of pounds worth of magic money to keep the show on the road. They can't of course. They know it and if we ever choose to be honest with ourselves, we probably know it as well. They have learned the hard way that trying to close a hospital is the quickest way to render yourself unelectable, even if every medical professional agrees that closing the hospital is the best thing to do. So instead they look for ways to make the required cuts far from the public view.
Last week some highly reputable outfit shone a merciless light on some of this. And it is nasty. Really nasty. So your hip is killing you . You go to your GP and tell him your hip is killing you. He sends you for an X Ray which reveals your hip is all shot to hell. He tells you you need a new one. So he sends you along to the hospital to meet with the consultant who has the job of installing the new hip. All very straight forward and in an NHS free at the point of use, this is available to each and every one of us who is deemed to be a bone fide citizen.
Well it was. Not any more. Well. Not in England at least. For instead of meeting with a consultant you now get to meet with a beaurocrat who doesn't talk about how much your hip is hurting. Instead they get you one the scales and work out just how fat you are. And if you are deemed to be too fat, they tell you to bugger off and lose some weight before coming back. The report was all about how angry the consultants are about this. They seem to think they are the real experts who should be making the decisions about who gets a new hip and who doesn't. They are seriously pissed off that the beaurocrats have muscled in on their turf. It's hard to blame them for being angry.
Of course this kind of thing is pretty inevitable when you think about it. Politicians promise to maintain the NHS. Politicians promise not to cut the NHS. Politicians promise not to raise taxes. More people use the NHS. The NHS creaks at the seams. Politicians haven't the first clue what to do about it. Politicians hire Fancy Dan high fliers from the private sector and pay them six figure salaries to work a miracle. Politicians offer the Fancy Dan high fliers massive bonuses if they can find new ways of cutting NHS costs without the public noticing. The Fancy Dan high fliers come up with a cunning plan. We can stop fat people from getting expensive treatment. And the really good news here is that 63% of the population is deemed to be overweight or obese. So we can still bang on about how our NHS is free at the point of use for everyone. We just don't bang on about the fact that we have added an extra line to that 1947 statement. You know. The bit that says free at the point of use for everyone who isn't fat.
Pretty neat, right? The Fancy Dan high fliers cash their fat bonus cheques and the politicians get to keep on spouting their nonsense and nobody is any the wiser.
But wait one minute. Surely this is a war on fat people, not a war on the poor. Well once upon a time I guess it would have been. Back in the days of cotton mills and children being boosted up chimneys, poor people tended to be skinny people. Not any more. Now studies in obesity show the opposite. In the leafy suburbs where people own second homes and send their kids to private school, Waitrose is the shop of choice and people have the wherewithal to fill their trolleys with all the healthy stuff. In the schemes on the other side of the tracks, Farmfoods rules supreme. For a pound you can buy a whole box of things that have the look of sausages but in fact are little more than tubes filled with reclaimed fat, sugar and a bunch of weird and wonderful flavourings.
Check out any map of obesity and it looks a lot like the map of life expectancy. If you live in Kensigton you can expect to live many years longer than if you live in Easterhouse. Similarly if you live in Kensington and go to the gym and shop in Waitrose, statistically you are all but certain to be many pounds lighter that you will be if you live in Easterhouse and shop in Farmfoods. The wheel has come full circle since the days of Dickens when Mr Bumble was fat and Oliver was skin and bone. Now the rich tend to be trim whilst the poor tend to be obese. And this of course makes the cunning NHS plan all the more cunning. You save cash by finding a way to exclude fat poorer people from getting treatment and thereby ensuring slim rich people get seen quickly even though the budget has been cut. Especially older richer people.
And whose votes do politicians really covet? The older richer people who vote in their droves. And whose votes are the politicians really not all that bothered about? All those obese poorer people who don't tend to bother much with the polling booths.
Unlike the decision to pour water on dockers in Dumfries council bins, this is not the action of a poor hating lone wolf. This one has to come right from the top. But the effect is much the same.