On Easter Sunday, the Mail released an ‘exposé’ of Britain’s leading food bank charity, the Trussell Trust. Its field reporter detailed how when he pretended to be poor, he was given free food. (I await next week’s trailblazing investigative piece in which a Mail reporter pretends his house has been burgled and gets an outrageous free visit from the police at the taxpayer’s expense.) It’s hardly surprising, though, that the paper that in its century-long career has backed Hitler, the Blackshirts and more recently the French National Front doesn’t have the most compassionate views regarding poor relief. The wider point is that the Mail piece formed the apex of a concerted right-wing witchhunt against the Trussell Trust and food banks more generally. Iain Duncan Smith’s department has called the Trust’s campaigns ‘misleading and emotionally manipulative’, following a series of attacks. Edwina Currie wrote a similar and particularly fulminatory column, whilst David Cameron’s constituency office called police on food bank campaigners including the Bishop of Oxford (ironically, in a week when Cameron has insisted Britain is a Christian country.)
Vitriolic exchanges are everywhere in politics. But private charity is a fundamental tenet of conservative thinking on welfare. Though ‘socialism wouldn’t work because humans are inherently selfish’, human generosity through charity is, for the Right, an effective and non-coercive way of helping the needy. And this is exactly why the Trussell Trust has come under Tory fire – because it hasn’t simply kept on collecting donations and providing handouts, but dared to critique the government. In a climate where only a handful of Labour MPs voted against the Tories’ stringent welfare restrictions, it is hard to find anyone in the welfare debate not repeating soundbites about scroungers ad infinitum. The Right are winning the welfare debate, just as they successfully spun the financial crisis as attributable to Labour spending. And so when a voice from the frontlines of poor relief says that their strategy is misguided, it must be silenced.
Facts don’t matter. Currie’s column repeated millionaire Lord Freud and the Sun’s claim that food banks hand out food at random and then act surprised when usage increases. I wish they did; I wish that the right to a decent meal in the world’s seventh richest economy came without invasive questioning. But referrals from competent authorities and means-assessment are criteria for food parcels, and swathes of poverty statistics back up the Trussell Trust’s claims.
We see many politicians, but particularly conservatives, retreat into apparent hypocrisy when their narratives are challenged. Thus the Thatcher government, bent on rolling back the state, deployed the police and army liberally to bully, attack and spy on just about every opponent from striking miners to stoned hippies at festivals. Except it’s not hypocrisy at all- the food banks debacle shows up conservatism for what it is. It is not a political ideology that believes in social responsibility, a limited state, free markets and defending the hardworking. It is a social force that exists to defend the wealthy and powerful by any means necessary. When we have the debate about welfare spending, or when the Tories launch their ‘For Hardworking People’ slogan, we witness a continuation of tropes about the inherent moral value of work and the division between ‘deserving’ and ‘lazy’ poor that have existed for centuries. When they originated, it was to justify the fact that millions toiled in abject poverty to support a ruling class that lived on unearned wealth by birthright. We may live now in liberal capitalism and not aristocracy, but the discourses remain the same. If you’re rich and complain about inequality, you’re a hypocrite. If you’re poor and complain about inequality, it’s the politics of envy. And even if you’re a supposed sacred cow of British conservatism such as a charity of hardworking volunteers or an Anglican Bishop in the Prime Minister’s home constituency, prepare to be tossed aside as soon as you put a toe out of line.
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