It is the casual dismissal that startles. When the Chancellor Philip Hammond was challenged by Emily Maitlis on Newsnight about the levels of poverty faced by people in Britain, he dismissed the idea out of hand.
“I reject the idea,” he said. Not much room for misinterpretation there. But, just in case that was not hammered hard enough, Phil hammered more. When it was suggested that the UN report into the state we’re in said that 14 million people in Britain face dire poverty, he said: “I don’t accept the UN rapporteur’s report at all.”
Still not clear? It’s “a nonsense”, added Hammer Hammond. And just for good luck, the kicker – “look around you, that is not what we see in this country”.
If you wanted to show the remoteness of the elected few from those they are in power to serve, that line did it. It’s the argument used by climate change deniers, the I-don’t-see-it-round-my-way argument, therefore it can’t happen. Which makes acts of faith and belief in God a tricky one to reconcile. It’s very close to the fake news dismissal, a way of swatting away uncomfortable truths, if they don’t stack up for you, by damning them as untrue. It allows people to contradict themselves, and then claim a shadowy conspiracy is moving against their reality and YOUR reality.
It’s incredible to see Philip Hammond, frequently put forward as one of senior cabinet’s most even-handed and sensible players, operate in this way, like a character in a CP Snow novel – urbane, Oxbridge, high-handed, remote, clubby.
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The signs of rising poverty are so evident it makes you wonder what reality Hammond inhabits. Very close to Hammond’s home on Downing Street, all the way from Victoria up to The Strand, rough sleeping is impossible to miss. So that argument falls.
And beyond, across the country, there is a similar tale, of street homelessness, of children in homeless accommodation – an estimated 130,000 across Britain. Shame on us for that.
There is more that is unseen. This is the growing, insidious poverty among those in work. Six months ago the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that four million working people were in poverty. They said 500,000 additional people had joined
that number in the last five years. It may be true that there are official statistics on numbers in work, but it is a topline number that doesn’t dig into what ‘in work’ means, and doesn’t mean.
The signs of rising poverty are so evident it makes you wonder what reality Hammond inhabits
At The Big Issue we believe in prevention, getting to the core of things before they develop into lifelong problems. We’ll continue to shout this loudly. However, sometimes things need done now. With no excuses, no pauses, no politicking.
As Hammond awaits a new boss at Number 10, there is one simple thing that must be done, beyond Brexit. Tell the damn truth. Admit the problem exists, and do something about it.
If Phil and the new PM did that, if they paused and accepted reality, things could change and change quickly.
We’ll be watching.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue