Sixty years on: the crowning failure of liberal Britain

John Bird Feb 23, 2012
John Bird

"Rather the old gut-rotting, neglected poverty than the state-sponsored, state-orchestrated poverty of today"

Last week was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I cannot remember the exact thing I was doing the day the Queen ascended the throne but I know where I was.

No, this will not turn into a rant at how terrible the rich-poor gap between the Royal Windsor’s and the distressed Birds was in 1952. The Bird family was, though, living in a small windowless room in a void in the roof of my grandmother’s Mews cottage in slum-strewn Notting Hill.

In a space that is about the size of my present kitchen. One bed in which mum and dad slept one end, and three boys the other. And a toddler in a drawer on the floor.

We were not part of the 99 percenters though. If we were anything we were in a minority per cent – I guess maybe five per cent – of people who really were abjectly poor and destitute.

At that point the middle classes’ wholesale rescue of the working class, called the Welfare State, had only just begun it’s bumpy road. There were pockets of abjectness and our pocket was but a few miles from Buckingham Palace and St James’ Park.

By the time the Queen had her coronation we had slipped our moorings and had been shipped out to a Catholic convent – taken into care because we were economically unsustainable as a family unit, there being a new baby on the way. Then followed three years of institutional baths, clean beds, clean underwear, regular eating and devotion. It was not Oliver Twist. But it was grim.

Why this is not a rant about rich and poor, and the great divide, is because it is about that big middle class rescue plan that did not quite work – the one called the Welfare State – our current Liberal democracy and the present world of supposed social equality.

Now, so many people are passionate about such things as the demonisation of the poor. In the days at the beginning of Her Majesty’s reign the poor did not have the middle class on their side.

Now they have. Now the poor cannot be talked down to or told off. They cannot be vilified or described in damning terms without liberal newspaper columnists tearing into the transgressors.  

But I would suggest something that the Queen’s recent anniversary of 60 years on the throne throws up for me. Speaking as an individual who has made a journey from abject poverty to comfort, I think it is now worse than ever to be poor. I would hate to be caught in the current world of poverty.

Rather the old gut-rotting, neglected poverty than the state-sponsored, state-orchestrated poverty of today. All the escape routes out of poverty, the ladders of mobility so to speak, have been removed. Now poverty is surrounded by confusion and good intention.

Now with 32 per cent of the government’s income spent in and around poverty, you have highly expensive poverty. We have screwed the minds of the poor with charity and benefits. We have kept them dependent on us for longer than need be. And all for good, well intentioned reasons.

Take just one avenue that used to exist for poor people back in 1952: prison and reformatory. You went in bad and you often came out more educated. Often with a trade or skill which you could sell easily in the market place. And reoffending rates were halcyon compared with today.

Now, the criminal justice system does not work, for perpetrator or those wronged. Our prisons are warehouses. And someone like me, who was educated by the criminal justice system, would sink like a stone in the current system.

Let the Queen celebrate her 60 years. But let us ask why the middle class rescue of the poor and working class threw up such a poverty-making machine, all with the best of intentions. And why our poverty children are condemned to a life of bitter emptiness. 

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