I think I may have had my final straw.
For the last 20 years my work has brought me face to face with shocking and disgraceful poverty and inequality. I have constantly been reminded of how utterly unjust and unfair the systems that shape our society are. For the past twelve months, as we’ve been developing In Our Times, I have been thinking and reading almost daily about rising inequality and other fall out from global capitalism. I’m blessed with a persistently optimistic temperament and an unshakable belief that we can be better than this, and for the most part that helps. Of course I get angry, but I usually remain positive and spend much of my time as an artistic director trying to find ways of using theatre as a tool for change that aren’t didactic, declamatory or dull. I love theatre. I love the passion and magic of theatre (not theatre buildings, frequented far too extensively by a dwindling elite, where even the most ‘radical’ work is compelled by its very context to reinforce rather than reinvent the status quo), but the act and art of theatre, the liveness, connections and transformations. So I don’t do tirades, I try to work hard with other artists to find more subtle ways; and, despite an (almost illicit) pleasure in in-your-face political theatre, I’ve avoided agit-prop or anything like it. But today may just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I was in the middle of reading a Barnardo’s report, Below the Breadline, which traces the lives of 16 UK families who are living in poverty. It’s from 2009 so all the evidence would suggest that post-cuts things are even worse now than they were then. But things were pretty bleak. It’s an excellent report, talks very personally about the experiences of these families (who’s largely dreadful quality of life is no different to any of the other 13 ½ million people currently living in poverty in our country, which is, lest we forget, 7th richest in the world); but it also looks at the persistence and cycles of poverty. A really intelligent useful contribution, like so many others I’ve come across from Barnardo’s, UNICEF, JRF, Save the Children. Considered, grounded, deeply thought through. So my head was in the day-to-day reality of poverty: families trying to pay 367% interest on a loan of £100 because Provident (or a loan shark) was the only place they could get the extra they needed when the fridge broke and the local authority crisis loan people considered a fridge a ‘luxury’ not a necessity (with five children) and the high street banks wouldn’t let them open an account because they have no drivers licence or passport; about parents regularly going without food to feed their children; parents struggling to save £10 per week from April to September to afford school uniforms; children with no birthday presents; multiple siblings sharing beds; levels of poverty and deprivation that if we don’t see it ourselves regularly, we might think our ‘civilized society’ had left behind a hundred years ago…..
So that’s where my head was when my colleague Annette forwarded me a link to a podcast from the Today programme. And that’s where all ability to be subtle and measured finally left me. Yet another self-satisfied fool talking infuriating nonsense with a Bullingdon-esq tone that of course he’s right, how could there be another rational opinion, don’t you know this is how the world is?! There have, of course, been many others, virtually interchangeable in tone. This one just happened to be Christian Guy, Managing Director of Iain Duncan Smith’s pet project, the Centre for Social Justice. He was challenging David Bull about UNICEF’s latest report, which warns that child poverty will increase as a result of the coalition’s swingeing cuts, reversing any good (if inadequate) work that has happened over the past 10 years. Rather than acknowledge this and face up to the horrific poverty and inequality that engulfs the country, Guy would rather “redefine what we mean by poverty”, seemingly financial measures of poverty are inadequate. Inadequate or inconvenient? But (now bear in mind what I’d just been immersed in) I particularly lost it when he said,
“the root causes of poverty are things like the breakdown of family life, failing schools, or a welfare system that doesn’t reward you to take work, or drugs or alcohol”
These are not the causes but the results. He’s managing director of a policy think-tank, surely he has a firmer grasp of cause and effect than this? How can he, and the others like him, in all conscience recreate this myth of an undeserving poor that we thought we’d banished seventy years ago? The Centre for Social Justice report is based on flawed facts and flawed thinking. Let us agree once and for all that it is not the fault of the poor that they are poor.
One fifth of our population lives on less than 60% of the national average income, and over 50% of them have at least one member of the family in work. Many people are working extremely hard in multiple jobs to try and pull their families out of poverty, yet decisions about their lives and futures are being made by a Cabinet comprising 2/3 millionaires. The income over the last three years of the UK’s richest 1,000 people could have paid off the entire deficit and still left them with a £30 billion profit. If they’d even just paid capital gains tax on their profits that would have paid off 70% of the deficit. Our systems are corrupt and unjust, they keep the poor in their place and sanctify the rich. There was a 23% rise in rough sleeping last year, and a 15% cut in the homelessness budget. According to the government’s own equalities office “Britain is an unequal country, more so than many other industrialised countries and more so than it was a generation ago.” Over the past 30 years CEO pay has increased 127 times faster than worker pay. It goes on and on and on. And it’s wrong. The root of the problem is income inequality and the neo-liberal obsession with growth and individualism. Its time to change this defunct, inequitable, inhuman neo-liberal so called democracy for a better system that involves participatory democracy; that doesn’t prioritise property over people; and that enables all its citizens to have a fair start in life.
In a world where our channels of mass communication are largely controlled by those with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo, we need other ways and means of saying this to each other. We need open conversations to dream of alternatives; the time and space to think about difficult things; creative ways of imagining the future. Theatre can be one of these spaces; as were the occupy camps; as were the town squares during the Arab Spring; as are the offices of the many social justice groups and campaigners across the country and the world, the list goes on.
So now I return to planning for our In Our Times event…. Maybe there will be some agit-prop this time after all!