Friday, 30 December 2011

Christmas

It is ironic that many Christmas cards we send and receive carry images of festive scenes from the Dickensian era.

Candlelight flickering through frosted windows; a father in heavy coat and top hat, trudging through thick snow, carrying presents for his family; a horse-drawn carriage passing along snow-covered cobbles, flakes of falling snow shimmering in the yellow light cast from gas lamps.  ‘Traditional’ Christmas scenes that give us a warm glow and make us feel good as we look forward to spending time with our family and friends.

The irony is that the Dickensian era, fondly depicted on Christmas cards, was actually marked by extreme poverty, a situation to which contemporary Britain is returning. 

The works of Charles Dickens were set mainly during the reign of Queen Victoria, a time when a small, elite group built fabulous wealth through the exploitation of the majority.  The Dickensian scenes on our festive cards depict the Christmas enjoyed by the wealthy: but for the majority of the population back then, Christmas was just another day of bitterly cold temperatures, insufficient food, grinding poverty and a future without hope.

Today, in North Ayrshire, a growing number of our fellow citizens are without work.  The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government in London is implementing a series of measures that will reduce the amount of benefit received by the poorest members of our communities; many claimants are forced to work for £10.00 per week on top of their benefit, a scheme the government describes as ‘work experience’, but which is actually a means of supplying large companies with a workforce that is paid a real-terms rate far below the minimum wage. 

North Ayrshire has the highest unemployment in Scotland, and some of the worst deprivation in the country: a recent report by the respected charity Save the Children revealed the local area now has the second-highest level of children living in severe poverty.

In Scotland - the European Union’s biggest producer of oil - every third family is now living in ‘fuel poverty’, which means they have to spend more than 10 per cent of their disposable income to heat their homes.  The level of ‘extreme fuel poverty’ – spending more than 20 per cent of income on heating – is rising steeply.  Lucy McTernan, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Bureau Scotland, was recently quoted saying, “There can no longer be any doubt that fuel poverty in Scotland is approaching crisis levels.”

After generations of social advancement, where governments strove to achieve full employment; where safeguards were put in place to prevent people falling into poverty; where standards of housing were improved; where barriers were removed from educational and workplace attainment, the Tory Government of Margaret Thatcher was elected and set about deconstructing the ‘social contract’.

Under Thatcher, all that mattered was making money: people were expendable, workers were to be exploited once again, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  Her ideology was fully embraced by her successor, John Major, and by New Labour Governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  Now we have the Tories back in power – with the help of the Liberal Democrats – and things are going from bad to worse.  The gap between the wealthy elite and the rest of us is returning to levels not seen since Charles Dickens was writing books and Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Victorian London.

Tory Government Ministers don’t care about the plight of the poor.  Of course, they won’t admit this in television interviews or in newspaper articles, but it’s true.  Many of the Tory-Lib Dem Cabinet are millionaires: they are the Dickensian father in heavy coat and top hat, trudging through thick snow, carrying presents for his family.  They will enjoy the warm, happy Christmas depicted on festive cards.  Like the Dickensian wealthy-elite, the super-rich of today can’t begin to imagine how the poor will spend Christmas, and won’t devote much time, if any, to considering how parents feel when they know they’ve failed their children, simply because they lost their job, through no fault of their own, and can’t afford what is now perceived as a ‘normal’ Christmas.

The Tory-Lib Dem Government led by David Cameron is returning us to the dark days of fabulous wealth for a tiny minority, contrasted against an unremitting life of deep poverty for more and more of our fellow citizens.  We, the people, must not allow that to happen.

Another traditional Christmas favourite shows us a shining example of a better way, a better society, and again there is an element of irony to it.  The 1946 Frank Capra movie It’s A Wonderful Life – made in the USA, the most capitalist of societies – tells the story of one man’s feeling of failure because he believes he let down his family and the people of his home town.  In true Hollywood style, when the man, George Bailey, says he wishes he’d never been born and attempts to end his life by jumping into a raging river on Christmas Eve, his guardian angel, Clarence, saves him and goes on to show how so many people’s lives would have been poorer if George had never lived.

If you get a chance over the Christmas period, watch the film.  Irrespective of how many times you may have watched it before, it will still be inspirational.  It’s A Wonderful Life is not just a story about one man’s troubles and how he overcomes them, it is a metaphor for a better society, a socialist society.

Each of us touch so many lives in our journey from the cradle to the grave.  We can help or hinder our fellow citizens, we can decide to be selfish and look after ourselves, to the detriment of others, or we can work together to build a better life for us all. 

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