A royal wedding, the power of distraction and the news story you’ve probably missed.
We were in the kitchen having dinner when my flatmate said: “Did you see the news? Prince Harry got engaged to Meghan Markle!”
My reply should have been something like: “Oh really? From scale 10 to 0, my interest in this is at around -20.” But sadly, I already knew about it, as I had clicked on the Guardian article announcing the exciting news, earlier that morning.
You know what I didn’t know? I didn’t know about the benefit freeze for working people that will continue for another 12 months from April. For a third consecutive year, people in receipt of tax credits, child benefit, jobseeker’s allowance, part of employment and support allowance and universal credit, will see their real income being squeezed further, as inflation goes up. The policy implemented by George Osborne in 2015 will cost a working family with two children a £315 a year. Both stories were announced on the same day, but, guess which one drew more media attention. I mean who cares if Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicted that by 2020/2021, after a 4-year period benefit freeze, 470,000 more people will be living in poverty, with millions of households struggling to pay for their groceries or cover their rent and energy bills? A black woman from the US made it to British Royalty! All girls and young women have something to aspire to. If she made it, then we can all find our Prince Charming!
Even though I’m very tempted to get into how insane sounds to my Greek ears that a marriage to a guy supported by taxpayers’ money managed to turn Markle into a symbol for the rights of women of colour, I’m not going to do it. We have bigger and urgent problems to deal with.
When I wrote my first article for a Greek news website, back in 2014, focusing on the adverse health effects of austerity on population health, I couldn’t have thought that, 3 years later, I would write a similar piece for the UK. Coming from a country where I’ve witnessed the devastating impact of austerity, widening inequalities, real wages drop along with bailout of failed banks; where I’ve seen the feeling of anger and injustice being turned into xenophobia and alt-right votes, I can tell you that if no positive change happens soon, we’re all going to be in trouble. The signs are here, we just need to pay attention.
I mean in Buchanan Street, we don’t really see inequality; there’s prosperity and credit debt (which, by the way, reaches worryingly high levels). But what has been happening at the same time in a parallel universe, not very –geographically– far from us? Bath university vice-chancellor, Glynis Breakwell, resigned because extremists were raging over her £468k salary. Kenzia Dugdale decided to participate in a reality show to talk about politics but worry not: she donated £2,500, her wage for 3 weeks and 2 days, to a charity. In 2017, we’re still talking about the power of “aristocracy”, with 1/3 of Britain’s land still belonging to them, with 30 peers each worth £100m or more. In Scotland, nearly half the land is in the hands of 432 private individuals and companies, while aristocrats systematically and successfully evade both public scrutiny and inheritance tax.
Back to our universe now, UK real wages drop for the first time in three years, with rises in our pay lagging behind inflation. So, we may have the lowest level of unemployment since 1975 but the money we make doesn’t keep up with the rise of our cost of living. But at least, if we work tirelessly our way to the top, we are likely to change our circumstances! Actually, nope. According to the recent State of the nation 2017 report, too many in Britain are being left behind, with social mobility being a “stark postcode lottery”. The chances of someone from a disadvantaged background moving up the social ladder is closely linked to where they grow up, showing a deep division between rich and poor; between UK cities and remote rural or coastal areas. I know that 178-page report isn’t very reader-friendly so here’s a friendlier article by Alan Milburn, Chair of the Commission(ex-Chair to be precise as the whole team resigned due to UK government failing to respond to these findings). Of course, it’s depressive, but, it’s worth reading.
As if all of this isn’t enough, a new report by Joseph Rowntree Foundation will depress you even more. Over the last 20 years, the UK has made significant progress in reducing poverty, but, since 2015/16, this progress is at risk. Poverty rates for working-age individuals and households, for pensioners and children have started to rise again, with 16% for pensioners and 30% for children living in poverty. One in eight workers live in poverty (i.e. 3.7 million), with 47% of working-age adults on low incomes spending more than a third of their income on housing costs (note to self: to revise the history lessons by Mary Barbour and the 1915 Rent Strike). In Scotland, we do a pretty decent job, with poverty being lower here than in the rest of the UK and this has been the case for around 10 years. Over the last 20 years, there has been a gradual decline in overall poverty rates, reaching a low of 18%. However, due to UK social security decisions and the overall economic environment, in 2015/16, there has been slight increase of the Scottish population living in poverty (19%). If the upcoming draft budget of the Scottish Government doesn’t specify how it will prevent this situation from getting worse, a worrying trend seems to get established.
On the top of that, we have observed a sharp rise in UK mortality rates that is linked to austerity measures. According to a recent study, spending cuts between 2010 and 2014 were associated with an estimated 45,368 higher than expected number of deaths. And there’s more. People in the UK are now projected to live lives shorter by almost one year than what has been projected only 2 years earlier, meaning that if no positive change happens, a further one million earlier deaths are now projected to happen across the country, by 2058. The UK had experienced 110 years of steadily improving life expectancy. This has, now, come to an end, with austerity being a key contributing factor to this. In 2014, I had concluded that austerity was killing Greeks. Now, it’s killing Britain’s most vulnerable population.
The whole ‘bread and circuses’ concept has been around for centuries. We now need to prove to ourselves that we no longer fall for it. The task isn’t easy; it requires time, energy and constant vigilance.And with a royal wedding on the way, we just need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s totally worth the effort.