Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Bread and Butter Issues
This article of mine appears in The Guardian (Comment is Free)
"It is difficult to be kind when the price of everything is so expensive," bemoaned the Good Woman of Szechuan. Whatever would Berthold Brecht's heroine have made of Britain in 2008?
Make no mistake, what is making most people's lives a misery in Britain today is not anxiety about the distant prospect of sharia law, the infinitesimal chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, or the equally remote prospect of being arrested on terrorist charges, but how bloody expensive everything is.
We're being assailed on all sides: from our rip-off privatised utility and train companies, from local councils desperate to make up in increased council tax charges and fines the shortfall in funds they haven't received from central government- and of course from central government itself in the form of higher taxes on petrol, tobacco and alcohol.
The facts speak for themselves. Families are having to pay an extra £1,300 a year in household bills as food and fuel prices rise at their fastest rate for 17 years.
According to the AA, the monthly cost of filling up a car now exceeds £100 for the first time - with an average car now costing £106, compared with £90 a year ago. Our rail fares, which were already the most expensive in Europe, rose by up to 14.5% in the New Year.
Energywatch, the independent watchdog, calculates that the average household has to spend £1,020 a year on gas and electricity - over £100 more than a year ago.
And on top of all this, supermarket prices of basic essentials, such as eggs, butter, milk and bread are rising rapidly too. A report in the December edition of the trade magazine The Grocer records how the price of a basket of staple items was 23% higher than it was in July. Dairy prices are up 15.4% since January 2007, meat prices are 7.8% higher than a year ago.
And what do our feather-bedded, upper-middle class politicos do inresponse? Absolutely nothing. I'd wager that at least 90% of our honourable members wouldn't even know how much a pint of milk or half a dozen eggs now costs.
The rapid rise in the prices of everyday essentials affects the poor much more than the rich. "The richer you are, the lower the personal inflation you've got; the poorer you are, the higher personal inflation you've got," says the money-saving expert, Martin Lewis in Wednesday's Guardian. Millionaire City traders won't be much fazed by the rise in the price of a dozen free-range eggs from Sainsbury's from £1.62 to £2.35, but a pensioner forced to survive on the measly state pension of £87.30 a week (at 17% of average earnings the lowest in the EU), will be.
It's time the government stopped trying to remodel the world to the liking of a few neocon and "liberal interventionist" thinktanks and focused instead on ways to make life more affordable for hard-pressed Brits back home. That means renationalising our rip-off utilities and profiteering railway companies, bringing indirect taxes down by spending less on things we don't need - like costly illegal wars and hosting the Olympic Games, and, last but not least, bringing back that unfairly maligned 1970s body- the Prices Commission.
Bread and butter issues might not be as sexy as talking of Britain's "moral impulse" to spread democracy, or whether terror suspects can be detained for 28 or 42 days, but for most ordinary people in the country, they matter a damn sight more.
Or, as Brecht himself would have put it: grub first, then ethics.