welfare state of the nation

Remember the horsemeat scandal? A hurried panictime spread across the news media with more urgency than any usually given to food stories (such as those concerning the world’s population which has no access to regular food, or those nations with an obscene excess of the stuff.) Much to the dismay of Queen of the Gloom Kate Hurley-Burley, nobody died from eating horse DNA, so the heatlamp of scrutiny was slowly dimmed until there was barely a flicker left to read recent stories about dodgy fish. Daily updates from warehouses in Romania to three paragraphs on page twenty, and all because nobody died

In the light of Iain Duncan Smith claiming he could live on £53 a week, and the interconnected April 1 onslaught of welfare changes, the horsemeat scandal comes back to mind. Undercutting the media’s coverage was the inconvenient truth about the types of people who bought frozen ready meals on the cheap. Why do people buy low-cost, big bulk Tesco burgers fleshed out (if that’s the right phrase) with horse, or pile ’em high quid-a-box Lidl lasagna? What are these poor people thinking? Or doing?

Despite the popularity of Great British Menu and Masterchef, the general public are no more able to make confit of duck than they could name Zimbabwe’s highest scoring batsman*.

This is not primarily down to a lack of ingredients in most towns and cities, but their cost. On the now totemic £53 a week figure a Masterchef lunch is out of the question, even within walking/bus distance of the ‘world foods’ aisle at Morrisons. And I did say walk/bus for a reason; there’s a good chance that the economically challenged trying to rustle up something like a good meal every day won’t be able to hop into the car every journey. I should know, I’m one of them.

If you don’t already do so, join me in picking up odds and sods at Iceland every week, with bright £1 and £3 stickers on almost every shelf. Shopping budgets can only stretch so far even here, as IDS would find out if he took up the challenge to reduce his incomings to the bare minimum. It wouldn’t go amiss for David Miliband, able to fly off to a £300,000 job away from his working class constituency, to push his trolley around Iceland or Aldi either, to watch as banknotes become pocket-shrapnel far quicker than you realise. It’s not always possible to store away herbs and spices for future recipes if that week’s budget is taken up on basic ingredients.

The quality of food on a low level budget plunges too, which is both how any why the horsemeat scandal affected families on fixed or battered incomes. The bacon you fancy is far too expensive, that’s why what’s currently sizzling in the pan looks see-through and as though the pig was drowned. Pies are thick with tasteless pastry, chicken inflated with water, pizza barely covered with a shredded substance pretending to be cheese.

General assumptions of modern life are predicated on ideas about earning and spending, rather than saving and making do. It’s the opposite of the post-war generation (and the teaching they received) about the value of money coming in, the depth and breadth of opportunity. I know very well what happens when there’s too much month for the money, having been an office monkey with between 60-75% of my monthly wage taken in bills and private landlord rent. There’s only so often a northerner in a low-paid job can stretch the funds for social events, never mind eating something made from scratch. This is being repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the country, away from the cookbook world and glossy magazine fashion shoots.

How you react to the ready-meal reality of people defines your politics; some will urge people to aim towards better jobs with more pay, others would demand better pay and conditions, or more generous welfare payments. I think our current age is the most politically polarised time for a generation, fuelled by the very opposite of political anger. There has not been an ideology-age since the dual work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reshaped political parties as lifestyle management companies, and one consequence of all that is the righteous fury on both sides of the spectrum trying to reclaim their relevance. Somewhere away from all this is a group of ordinary people, millions in number, who couldn’t say with much confidence that they, like a Secretary of State of HM’s Government,  would live on £53 a week without any problems. The lifestyle choices you make now may well be formed by the comfort and complacency of your current surroundings. When these are taken away, even the taste of food changes with it.

The bad taste from all this debate, be it flavoured by welfare reform or Union fears, will rest on the tongue of only a small percentage of the population. Whatever term you use, it’s likely that politician’s won’t be part of them.

 

*Andy Flower, I’m told.

Word of 2012

This has been the year which has seen media cannibalism: the Leveson inquiry and all which continues to fall from that, both merely implied and strongly hinted. It’s been a year of trust and mistrust, stretching around the world and filling both television screens and social media feeds.

Twelve months ago my word for the year summarised the prevailing mood of the time – what seems now as more of a flash than a precursor, although continued demonstrations in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere show the natural progression of whatever it was people planted in 2011. That word and its intent has been overtaken by one of its core principles, which is why I’ve chosen the destination as the word of the year, rather than the means by which it is sought.

“Justice” has wrapped itself around this year and continues to direct the news agenda. It’s been the heart of the matter and the guiding principles. On the football pitch (and considerable time spent off it), ‘justice’ has been the heart of the alleged racial abuse between players and amongst rivals. Across social media platforms, most notably Twitter, teenagers have been locked up for abusing celebrities, putting under strain the arguments of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘democratisation’ which underpins the popularity of new media.

In nations across the world, different definitions of injustice either fill our news pages or are conspicuous in not doing. Israel’s ‘pillar of strength’ operation against Hamas in Gaza is framed by whichever definition of ‘justice’ it is to which you subscribe. In the Australian Parliament, the injustice of sexism was put to the sword by Prime Minster Julia Gillard in the most unexpected viral video of the year. As Conservative MP Nadine Dorries learns the hard way that you can’t talk about politics whilst eating an ostrich’s anus on prime-time ITV, her pet subject of abortion reform was brought into stark focus in Ireland with the death of Savita Halappanavar, lifting even higher the position of justice within that notoriously difficult debate.

Anders Behring Breivik was jailed this year for his mass murder in Oslo and Utøya. His actions – and the sentence he might avoid were he considered unfit for trial – examined what we considered to be rightful justice. In Norway and in the UK, the death penalty argument was brought to light once again, setting against each other what each consider to be rightful justice.

“We need to see that justice is done” is a common politician’s refrain. The on-going MPs expenses scandal brings in questions of justice, certainly when members are arrested (or not) for fraud. The vexed issue of votes for prisoners, and the century-long debate on the injustice of unelected politicos sitting in the House of Lords, questions our nation’s definition of justice. Of course for many Conservative  MPs, the judgements from the European Courts strike at the very heart of British Justice, capital letters underlined in bold, standing proud over the tinier, illegitimate Johnny Foreigner Justice. How Britain deals with people like Abu Qatada – with or without European courts – reflects on how diluted or otherwise our justice system may well be. Parliament discussed the right to live – and the right to be born – as did British Courts.

For the BBC, the ‘justice’ sought by victims of Jimmy Savile and others has been the Corporation’s defining moment, causing again those who want the wholesale abolition of Auntie to take their chance in making the case. Somehow the Savile case has caused ripples across the country into most unexpected areas. I have to be very careful in how I phrase this, as I don’t wish to be sued, so I’ll just say that “People who should not have been accused of wrongdoing were wrong accused of wrongdoing and that was wrong.”

Across Europe the ‘sons of Occupy’ and connected relations continue to push against the economic and political establishment which rule their lives. In Spain, a theatre accepts carrots in lieu of payment, and of course Catalan independence is a drum beaten with the sound of the pursuit of justice. Elections in former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, shake the expected definitions of democratic representation. In Athens, supporters of Golden Dawn reject the establishment for ‘real’ justice as opposed to the establishment oppression (as they see it) in the age of austerity.

Last year, I chose “Occupy”. This year, “Justice”. I notice that the OED and others have considered ‘omnishambles’ to be the defining word of the year, which might be true for a narrowly defined Westminster village version of the ‘national word of our age’, but it doesn’t work as universal. Well, unless Mitt Romney had won, I suppose…