What the Dickens is Going On?

We live in a peculiar crevice in the history of time. As the pioneer of Amazon experiences unassailable post-pandemic wealth and the chasm widens between those who are surviving, striving and thriving, never has Dickens’ opening line in A Tale of Two Cities felt more appropriate. In 1859, he wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When the elasticity of resources available to the sustained has contracted in proportion to you and I, you wish another cliff-edge did not lie ahead.

Nowhere was this apprehension clearer than as it palpably hovered over the Question Time audience in the post-industrial and deprived coastal town of Morecambe last Thursday. The first question came from Rob. He asked: “With the cost-of-living crisis, should the national insurance rise be postponed?” One after another, those either residing on low incomes or volunteering at their local foodbank decried the tax rise to such an extent that its only unenviable proponent was the Conservative panel member.

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph on 31/01/2022

Our most illuminating recent commentary on the inflated cost-of-living has been Jack Monroe – the former foodbank user turned television personality and author of several books about cooking on a budget. Monroe heard of inflation increasing to 5.4% and tested the theory by purchasing the cheapest bag of rice at a supermarket which, one year ago, cost 45p for a 1kg bag. The same brand now costs one pound for a 500g bag. At half the size and over double the price, this cost increase is equivalent to over 250%.

This public protestation earned Monroe a meeting with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), who agreed to update their inflation calculations. In a manner that vindicated all those who have ever counted the pennies in their hand as they approach a till, the ONS said: “Everyone has their own personal inflation rate.” The Vimes Boots Index, named after a Terry Pratchett character’s theory of socio-economic unfairness, is now being developed to document the increasing cost of basic food products.

Last Wednesday, during a debate on the Good Food Nation bill at the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee in Holyrood, Scottish Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton described those using foodbanks as “possibly less well-educated”. Alasdair Allan, who stood at my side when we opened Eilean Siar foodbank in his own constituency in 2013 and who is a committee member, justifiably asked Ms Hamilton if she would reconsider rephrasing her statement. 

Now, anyone who observed Ms Hamilton’s comments would, I think, not quibble with the authenticity of her tone but perhaps the lack of sensitivity in which her question was conveyed. It just so happened these comments followed a representative of The Trussell Trust providing evidence at the committee in question. Monroe immediately hit back on Twitter, saying: “Rachael, I wrote my first bestselling cookery book as a foodbank user and have gone on to write six more.”

Coincidentally, while this was taking place, Scotland’s new social security agency launched additional support for disabled adults in precisely the same week their UK equivalent Department for Work and Pensions introduced a new target “to move half a million people into jobs by the end of June”, which accompanies increased sanctions for Universal Credit claimants. It still strikes me as absurd that we used to sanction foreign dictators but now sanction our poorest citizens.

Currently, our political and social landscape looks less like two cities and more akin to a tale of two countries. However, from April, our economic and material climate will, for many, feel less like Dickens’ spring of hope and more like his winter of despair. We may live in peculiar times but if forthcoming tax rises continue with inflation as it stands, even more bitter times lie ahead.