In recent days both of our leading political parties have, to one degree or another, embraced the idea that the government has some role in regulating people's lifestyles. And especially the lives of poor people. Indeed, we are expected to carry on with the Fabian judgementalism which made Alfred Doolittle and his friends such a problem - their poverty was, it is implied, the consequence of their poor lifestyle choices rather than a response to poverty.
It seems to me, and has done for a very long while, that we don't solve the problem of poor lifestyle choices by authorising the wrenching of those choices from the hands and lips of the people making them. Not just because such a judgement is immoral but because it doesn't work - we know and have seen thousands of times - that bans, price hikes, regulations and controls merely drive the people who choices you want to influence into the welcoming hands of criminals - smugglers, dealers, moneylenders and all the other occupations of organised gangs.
So it was pleasing to read someone writing in the Guardian who points out the central truth about poor people and poor lifestyle choices - these are responses to their circumstance not the cause of that circumstance:
The underclass eats fast food, drinks and smokes, and some of its more unruly members even take drugs. Why? Why?
Listen, I always want to say, if you’re genuinely mystified, answer me this: have you never had a really bad day and really wanted – nay, needed – an extra glass of Montrachet on the roof terrace in the evening? Or such a chaotic, miserable week that you’ve ended up with a takeaway five nights out of seven instead of delving into Nigella’s latest?
You have? Why, splendid. Now imagine if your whole life were not just like that one bad day, but even worse. All the time. No let-up. No end in sight. No, you can’t go on holiday. No, you can’t cash anything in and retire. No. How would you react? No, you’ve not got a marketable skills set. You don’t know anyone who can give you a job. No. No.
Great stuff (even if I don't think people who don't get this are sociopathic - it's an overused and abused term) that sums up the truth. The single mum in a damp council flat - she has a crap life and the Lambrini, the packet of cheap cakes and the fags help make that crap life just a little bit tolerable And the bloke just made redundant for the tenth time in six years, back on the dole and facing the slightly sneering insistence of the DWP - three cans of premium lager, some roll-ups and a £5 flutter at the betting shop help get him through the depressing prospect of trying to find another crap job to replace the crap job he's just lost.
Yet we want to make out that that single mum's problem is that she's three stone overweight not that she lives a crap life in a crap flat. And that the unemployed bloke would be better off if he didn't drink or smoke - as if that would help find him a stable job paying a decent wage. Everywhere I look, I see people wanting to lecture these people - plus the lads on the park bench, the girl's with a bottle of cheap vodka loading up before heading out to places where they can't afford to drink and the old bloke sat outside Wetherspoons on a chilly morning nursing a pint of the cheapest ale that establishment sells.
We need to stop the judgement. Put away the puritan lectures. And focus ourselves on the real problem - that, even in our rich land, there are too many people who have pretty crap lives. Not just because of misfortune but because of poverty. Not inequality but poverty plain and simple. Not having enough of the means for life not to be crap. And the discussion we should have here isn't about how we can take money off one set of folk to give to poor people - as if there is no prospect of them standing on their own feet and only the forced charity of the wealthy can put things right.
Instead let's talk about the barriers to turning folk around - to finding ways for their lives to be a little less crap. Some of this is about money but a great deal is about the way in which we've allowed the mission creep of political priority to make people's lives worse - whacking great big 'green' imposts on fuel prices, ramping up 'sin' taxes making one of the most regressive tax systems known to man, and creating a housing system where without subsidy only the rich can live in the places where there are jobs and where people want to live.
So let's stop treating the less well off as another species - a world filled with indigent drunks and feckless mums - and ask instead how the well-meant decisions of government have made it harder for them to have a life that isn't completely crap. Above all let's stop taxing, banning, regulating and judging the things that take the edge off poverty, that help people deal with the bad stuff and which give folk a small bit of pleasure in an otherwise depressing world.