First published by Common Weal
I want to ‘Merry Christmas Bedford Falls‘ my way out of the year. I want to finish up with a happy-going-on-euphoric finish, celebrating the best of humanity and leaving myself feeling good. That’s what I want to do – but it feels like it jars a little bit.
Why? Because one in five parents in the UK fear they won’t be able to afford any presents at all this year, and their children are offering to forego pocket money to help them. I have written before at how hard I find it to hear of the suffering of children. It knots up my stomach and makes me feel a kind of burning fury.
And if that’s true in general, then Christmas makes it close to unbearable for me. I am a bit of a sucker for Christmas. I’ve always loved the excitement, the warmth, the peacefulness, the way it so often brings out the best in people – plus the food. And that all comes from a happy childhood. Every childhood memory of Christmas is positive for me.
But every one of my Christmases as a child was warm, loving, sharing, bountiful. It’s not that it was particularly extravagant, but the happy memories don’t come from the size of the present or how much food there was. It is all about the excitement of a special time and being with the people you care about.
The idea that that might be taken away from a child upsets me deeply, the idea that one out of five children growing up in Scotland just now may have a memory of Christmas which is very different indeed from mine. The memory of a Christmas with parents who perhaps can’t look them in the eye, feeling they’ve let them down.
If there are no presents, how much food will there be? How warm their house? In what sense will this be a Christmas for them at all?
And it is most certainly not only children I worry about this year. The last week has been intensely cold (it hit -18 degrees here) and we’ve been making do with a very cold house – not because we couldn’t heat it more but because money is tight and we can cope with this. But we’ve got a fairly well insulated house.
People I know with older houses are waking up with ice on the inside of their windows, and that’s with central heating. God knows what it must really be like if you have a small, old, drafty, poorly insulated, damp flat and you can’t afford to heat it. God knows what it must be like if you’re hungry at the same time.
And god knows what it must be like to turn on the TV or look out the window if all you see is an idealised version of Christmas with happy families opening presents under a big tree in a cosy family home and then eating too much food and crashing out on the sofa. How must it feel to be outside that?
I believe with all my heart that tears, passion, determination, quiet anger and empathy are the only tools we have which are capable of building a future which is better than this one
Or let’s forget Christmas altogether and just think of the long, cold winter ahead. It has been cold enough in here to make me appreciate the idea of warm banks (though I’ve never been hungry enough to properly, viscerally understand the real meaning of a food bank for those who need it). And I’m fit and healthy. I fear for low-income pensioners this year. Fear it very much.
So I feel more than a little guilt that I’m not one of those people this Christmas. My kids will have a lovely time, feel all the excitement, we’ll have our family round, have a lovely big roaring fire. I’ll eat more than I need and drink more than I should. While we will be very careful with money all winter this year I also know that at any moment it gets bad or cold then we can sort it quickly.
And I feel angry at what it seems to me is so little being done about it. Yes, the Scottish Government’s Scottish Child Payment is an important and potentially life-saving move. But as with so much, I find it hard not to get the impression that having done this and got the plaudits the Scottish Government decided ‘that’s poverty and suffering covered then’. Or worse, ‘that’s our image on poverty and suffering managed then’.
Perhaps I am too maximalist in what I’d do to protect the most vulnerable Scots this winter. Perhaps I overstate the problem. And perhaps I’ve missed the information on the package of measures the Scottish Government has put in place instead of the kind of approach I proposed.
But I can tell you this – every single warm bank or other emergency initiative I have heard of, been told about or have read about has been scrambled together either by a charity or by a community itself. They may have the support of local government but as best I can tell there is no nationwide plan, no universally-available solutions. It seems like pot luck if you have somewhere to go, to reach out to.
What’s the message from this? That we’re all on our own? That it’s up to you as an individual citizen to do something about those in most need? The embedding of food banks as a necessary part of our social protection has taken us backwards from the post-war ideal of the welfare state. It echoes the Victorian era of charity-or-death. Surely that isn’t where we want to go next?
Release us from that god-awful rat race for even a few days and we become better people – if we could only release ourselves for good, we could become better people for good
So am I going to leave you on a low, the last words I write in 2022 sad and depressing? No, because there is something else I also want you keep in your head. Sure the media is filled with hard-hearted rich people who seem to revel in the suffering of others. But the sociopathy of the powerful does not reach far.
Everyone I know who seems blind to the suffering of children this Christmas works for a newspaper or is a politician or a wealthy public figure. No-one I’ve met doesn’t think something should be done for those who will suffer this winter (and I don’t live in a bastion of Marxism).
I’ve seen people moved to tears by what is happening to people just now. I’ve joined them. I had a conversation with someone about the impact on children and he was desperately trying to pretend he wasn’t crying. I know so many people determined to volunteer or help or do something to make things better for people who do not deserve what is ahead of them.
I’m on the Board of a small local community project and the passion with which people speak when we talk about wanting to help is unmistakable. That’s local business people, church elders, professionals – none personally is at any risk this winter. But if anyone says ‘perhaps we could…’ there is no discussion and no demur. Everyone says ‘do it’ – or, more likely ‘do it – and more’.
Those tears, that passion and determination, the quiet anger, the overflowing empathy, the warmth and the love that I have observed go a small way to easing the pain I feel when thinking about what people face this winter. You can dismiss it as middle-class guilt all you want, you can’t fake some of the tears I’ve seen. These are real.
And in them I find a never-ending source of hope. I have never wavered from my belief that people are good and kind unless they are given a reason not to be. Right wing politicians and far, far too many in the mainstream media seem to thrive on the belief that people are selfish, greedy, angry at each other all the time.
I don’t believe it. It seems to me that right-wingers believe they are simply telling the truth about human nature, but a lifetime of being surrounded by it makes me certain that it is in fact them who are promoting selfish human nature. Our society pits person against person in so many ways we barely even register it, the powerful shout it on and then stand back and say ‘look at humans, they’re so base’. It’s a lie.
And if an artificial sense of conflict is created by making people believe that what stands between them and what they hope for is not the powerful but other people like them, it means we can undo it. It means there is an alternative.
I believe with all my heart that tears, passion, determination, quiet anger and empathy are the only tools we have which are capable of building a future which is better than this one. When I think like this and write like this it puts into stark perspective the many conversations I’ve had with political insiders.
‘Forget the schemes, they don’t vote’ I was told by senior figures in the 2014 indyref. But others chose not to forget them for a change and, you know what, they did vote. I wish we’d forgotten them even less than we did.
No quote is more important than this by David Graeber; “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently”. We can make it differently. The barrier isn’t people, the barrier is power. People don’t want children to wake up on Christmas morning without a present to open; power is indifferent.
Christmas really can bring out the best in us. Release us from that god-awful rat race for even a few days and we become better people. If we could only release ourselves for good, we could become better people for good. God knows we’re a rich nation. God knows there is no reason for anyone to be hungry this Christmas which can’t be traced back to corporations, politics and the media.
So please don’t mistake this for me trying to ruin your Christmas by reminding you that there is so much wrong. It is me trying to remind you that there is so much right in humanity that we shouldn’t need a Christmas to remember it. It is me never, ever ready to give up on the belief that this is not as good as it gets. It isn’t, and this is a very good time to remember it. For our generation, empathy is radical.
I hope you have the most wonderful festive season possible whatever it brings you. I hope it is warmth and joy and hope and friendship and love. I hope your return in the New Year is refreshed and nourished by it. And then I hope we can get this whole fucking thing changed.
Merry Christmas. And thank you.