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John Bird: If only Bob Cratchit had been trained instead of haunted

Poor Bob, like a lot of readily-replaceable workers in a poor wage economy, had to rely on generosity and good-heartedness in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. But if we want to dismantle poverty, we have to ensure that people are educated and skill-upped

A Christmas Carol

Bob Cratchit wasn’t worth an awful lot to Mister Scrooge, and possibly Messrs Marley and Scrooge. This winter you can go to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare and watch the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which until its ending scenes shows how lowly Scrooge thought of his underpaid clerical assistant, Bob.

Bob was a thrupenny clerk; or that’s how Scrooge used him for most of the story. Scrooge could ‘out’ him one day and take another ‘Bob’ from the mob of ‘Bobs’ there were in the world. And until Scrooge turned over a new leaf and became exemplary in terms of charitableness, he probably threw out a regular amount of ‘Bobs’ to fend for themselves. In a world that couldn’t make much out of an ordinary ‘Bob’, and hard-hearted exploitation ruled the day, Bob was no more than a cypher.

Now of course, if Bob Cratchit was like Uriah Heep, who appears in Dickens’ David Copperfield, who was incredibly and obsequiously useful, worth his weight in gold, then Bob wouldn’t have been tossed out the door. Of course, Uriah became so damned useful that in the end he tossed his master out, having learned all the tricks of the trade and much of the underhandedness of business. And made himself indispensable.

John Bird
John Bird

Bob Cratchit though, bless his heart, was too, too honest; he did not, and never did, scheme and learn the art of money-lending, or the tricks to become a controller of Scrooge. Hence, he had to rely on dead ghosts – not always the best of supporters – to come back Hamlet-like and frighten the greed and commercialism out of his master. And end up with a pay rise (he was paid ‘thruppence an hour’, so about £63 a week in today’s money), extra coal for the office fire grate, and a hamper of food for his starving children and wife. Including a fecking fat goose for Tiny Tim’s Christmas dinner.

Poor Bob, like a lot of poor workers in a poor wage economy who are readily-replaceable, had to rely on generosity and good-heartedness – which obviously Scrooge had none of – though we could, thankfully, rely on the good-heartedness of Charles Dickens, author. Dickens finally came home with the goods, but it would have been better if Bob could’ve done something under his own machinations. Relying on the vicissitudes of the bleeding heart is a hit-and-miss affair, as is witnessed in the winds of January when, each year, the street homeless get little and often nothing of the care and careful handling they get before and over Christmas.

Now, we need to be upskilling and reskilling our people, so that their value goes up with their efforts

No, Bob Cratchit, wage slave par-excellence was fortunate in having ghosts rooting for him in the back story. On reflection, it would’ve been better if his mum and dad had managed to invest in making Bob more useful to the market. So instead of getting him ‘job-ready’ as a thrupenny clerk, they had helped make him into a solicitor, a legal clerk, or even a proprietor, then his value to the market would have gone up.

In the UK, we have a low-wage economy. Despite the lowest jobless rate since 1975, largely due to the rise in self-employment, there’s little to celebrate. People are getting poorer due to wages that can’t keep up with inflation. But the trade union movement manages to push up the value of workers by combining into bigger numbers, meaning that the individual isn’t always made to provide their labour for as cheap as possible.

Trade unionism ensured that workers were not, like Bob, just ground down into nothingness. Now, we need to be upskilling and reskilling our people, so that their value goes up with their efforts. That’s why the trade union movement is probably coming back into its own, with its increasing emphasis on education and training and adapting to new technologies.

Bob Cratchit didn’t have a union. Nor did he have skills that Scrooge could make an enormous amount of money out of. So Scrooge could ride roughshod over the poor chap; of course, until the ghosts of Past, Present and Yet to Come came to straighten him out like a bad dose of bourgeois guilt.

Dickens could have done us all a bigger favour than inventing sentimental ghosts and hapless clerks who get walked over by unhappy, miserly proprietors

If we want to dismantle poverty today, we have to ensure that people in poverty get out through education and skill-upping. Not by ghosts, not by handouts, but by people being more useful to themselves.

What about those that cannot come to the market? lf we want to ensure social justice and aid for those who can’t go into the marketplace due to illness, infirmity or older age, then we have to sufficiently compensate them through social security so that they don’t live in dread and fear. And don’t live hand to mouth.

Dickens could have done us all a bigger favour than inventing sentimental ghosts and hapless clerks who get walked over by unhappy, miserly proprietors. If only he had scripted a greater character who, rather than rely on the generosity of spectres, challenged the sickly, depressing system of cheap work and cheaper wages.

A Poverty Economy holds people back and gives them jobs of little or no value. Because we live in a low-wage economy, this seems acceptable to many employers – just as long as they can make their ‘sliver’ out of each and every employee. This though, makes the economy wasteful of human resources, and human potential, and embeds poverty and underachievement, wrecking our society.

Hopefully all of this will be sorted out by Christmas 2018, before Bob will be wheeled out again so that Scrooge can finally realise his humanity, buried deep under his greed. But I suspect that may not be the case. Investment in the transformation of our economy seems still rather far off.

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