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The sin of poverty we do disdain

Morpeth Street Coronation Street Party
I went to see my parents yesterday; they don’t often talk about their childhoods but yesterday my mum told me about the death of her Nan and a time when one of her elder brother had pneumonia.

As a child, my mum lived in a condemned slum dwelling in east London where I’m told that the ground floor lacked floorboards and was uninhabitable.  A couple of years ago my uncle (who is about 15 years older than my mum) told me that he was ashamed to live there and despised the acceptance of the conditions they lived in by those around him.

It was in those conditions just prior to the beginnings of the NHS that my great-grandmother fell ill.  There was no NHS to help her and the family could not afford to pay a doctor.  They were fortunate that the Whitechapel hospital was very charitable and doctors could be found to tend to the sick.  A doctor duly visited my great-grandmother at the family home and promised to do anything he could to help her.

The doctor left to go about his work; he’d been gone less than five minutes when my great-grandmother died.

Had there been access to proper housing, GPs and other medical help then who knows whether she might have lived longer?

The other story was very similar – her older brother contracted pneumonia as a child; there was no NHS to turn to and the family could not afford to pay a doctor.  This time there were no charitable doctors willing or able to give their time to treat a seriously ill child.  Fortunately, he lived – but imagine being a mum or dad, having a very ill child, knowing he might die and that there are doctors nearby who can help him but not having the money to pay for that help.  This is in living memory, in the capital city of the UK not in some two-bit former-colony... yes USA I am looking at you!

For all their talk of praising the NHS and keeping services free at the point of use, politicians are failing to protect a vital service to which a lot of citizens in other countries would love to have access.  Yes, yes, I can hear the cynics already simultaneously decrying the claim that other countries envy our NHS while grumbling about all those foreigners coming over here to use our free NHS and failing to grasp the contradiction there.  I suggest many in the USA would love a fairer system, such as the thousands who lined up for days to access a range of free medical services, including childhood immunisations that could save the life of a kid and that we take for granted.  Incidentally, health insurance for a family in 2009 cost an average of $13,375, that's more than I pay on my mortgage each year!

It is quite possible and even probably that the rich pay more to fund the NHS than they would do under a wholly privatised system.  To them I say, so what?  Nobody likes giving away their money but the alternative is a return to the previous system where those who can pay live and those who cannot die.  We, as a society, need people to do low-paid work because some jobs need to be done and are never going to pay a huge amount of money.  The least a society can do is look after those who need help in moments of crisis.

UKIP say they would keep the NHS free at the point of use but read the small print and they want us to have a health service like Austria, where the overwhelming majority of care is privately funded.  Thus leaving the potential for unmet need for many of the poorest in society and adding additional financial pressure on hard-working families who need to pay for medical insurance.

Labour began the process of privatisation, which is now being taken forward at speed by the Tories.  I don’t have a problem with commercial companies making a profit (not even a big profit… or even a fucking massive profit) if they are acting fairly and lawfully but I do have a problem with the privatisation of public services.  It just never goes well.  The railways are an expensive, complicated nightmare (e.g. a season ticket on the train would cost me £518 per month compared to £265.67 per month to drive, which includes insurance, road tax, petrol and purchase price of my motorbike).  Government IT system fuck-ups are too numerous to mention, the court interpreters contract was an expensive mess as was the Defence Solicitor Call Centre.  Don't get me started on the expensive waste that is the PFI scheme.  And just think what happened when the LAPD was privatised in RoboCop!

As for the Liberal Democrats, well I voted for them last time and I’m not doing that again!

All too frequently at the moment poverty is something to be disdained by the political classes and to be poor is equated with being unmeritorious in some way - TV shows like Benefit Street and How to Get a Council House depict the poor as scrounging layabouts or members of the criminal classes.  Politicians and others talk in ways that suggest poverty is a sin or even that those claiming to be too poor to feed themselves are simply liars on the scrounge for a free dinner.

What is the point of this post?  I don’t really know – maybe it’s a chance for me to moan about politicians or maybe it’s a chance to share a story to remind people that going back to a time without a path from cradle to grave is a horrific thought.  Maybe it’s just the fact that as I type this post Billy Bragg is blaring out of my stereo:

“I was a miner
I was a docker
I was a railway man
Between the wars
I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
"We're arming for peace me boys"
Between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars

Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars”


  1. I do so agree with your disdain for the US system of health care; as it's been said, Breaking Bad could only happen in America. But RoboCop was based in Detroit, not LA.

    1. Was it... damn of course it was! I watched it the other day and was sure it was LA... I think I was muddling the location of RoboCop with Demolition Man as I was thinking of a renamed LAPD.


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