Paul Harrison is at pains to make clear that his impassioned report on poverty and social conflict in the Borough of Hackney is not an academic survey. It is journalism, and proud of it. It would be totally inappropriate for a reviewer to cavil at the lack of cross-tabulations, or details of the conduct of interviews, or sampling techniques which might have proved that his selection of informants is as representative of the disadvantaged as he says it is. He is treading geographically but not methodologically in the footsteps of Charles Booth. His aim is to convey to his readers as vividly as he can just how awful are the lives of the poor and powerless inhabitants of the inner cities of a supposedly civilised nation which ought to be a great deal more ashamed of allowing such conditions to persist than it shows any signs of being.
Yet if he is to succeed in his aim, he must carry no less conviction than the most dispassionate and pedestrian of the arithmeticians and scholars of poverty. As he well knows, the people whose opinions he needs to influence will be as reluctant to confront his description as they will be determined to resist the conclusions he draws from it. Some of his readers, to be sure, will agree with him before they have turned his opening page: soggy liberal intellectuals, YS militants, inflation-happy NUPE-loving anti-monetarists and professional prophets of the terminal crisis of capitalism will all be standing ready to cheer his every word to the roof of Toynbee Hall. But they were on his side already. The people he has to reach are the ones who didn’t know, don’t want to believe it and have umpteen reasons of their own to dismiss as prejudiced, Utopian, sentimental and counter-productive every suggestion he may venture to make about what ought to be done.
For this, the most effective technique – perhaps the only technique which can even hope to be effective – is to make such people ask themselves how they would react if they had to live the lives that the poor and powerless do. They may not answer the question quite as Harrison thinks they ought. But he is perfectly right to suppose that nobody who was prepared to accompany him on a guided tour of Ridley Road, Queen’s Drive and the Holly Street estate could then seriously pretend that the question doesn’t call for an answer at all. It is as true now as it was in the days of William Morris that you only have to walk from one part of London to another with your eyes and ears – and nose – open to be aware that some people have a great deal more money than they need and other people a great deal less. Maybe Harrison’s informants aren’t all that representative and maybe some of them aren’t wholly to be believed. He could have said more about the Hackney-dwellers who do lead decent lives, the agencies which do achieve material improvements and the networks of families and friends which do provide effective financial and emotional support. But not even the most sceptical reader can do other than accept, however reluctantly, that the lives of a very large number of the inhabitants of Hackney, as of several other London boroughs and parts of several other British cities, are much as he describes them.
Nor can Harrison be faulted for glossing over the scrounging, the fiddling, the fecklessness, the delinquency, the self-deception and the wilful irrationality which are as authentic a part of the picture as the unmerited hardships, the gratuitous humiliations and the irremediable, self-perpetuating lack of opportunities for self-improvement. Some readers, accordingly, may well react by saying that although all of these people may need help, many of them only need it because they don’t deserve it. If Barbara, a 25-year-old unmarried mother of two, can’t afford heating, why does she have to smoke twenty cigarettes a day? If Elaine, from Montserrat, doesn’t want more children than she already has, why does she let two successive boyfriends father three more on her when she knows perfectly well that they won’t contribute a penny to their upkeep? Why did Iain, an ex-Army Glaswegian with hearing trouble, who had a perfectly good job as foreman in a small local factory, walk out on it just because the owners ‘came round complaining about everything’ one day in the manager’s absence? But not even the most censorious of middle-class moralists can seriously argue that cases like these are an excuse for denying the population of Hackney in general help that they demonstrably need and are officially entitled to. On what conceivable grounds can it be right that council tenants should have to wait two years for repairs, rent- and rate-payers on mimimal incomes be denied statutory rebates through lacking informed advice, families on supplementary benefit go without food for two days because the giro doesn’t arrive when it should, children have to sleep two or three to a bed while over two thousand council-owned properties are standing empty, an old people’s estate only have bells and pull-ropes installed in the rooms after enough of them have had strokes or falls for the tenants’ association to be listened to, or immigrant couples terrified out of their chosen neighbourhood by deliberate harassment and physical assault?
Harrison reports these topics so well that it is all the more of a pity that he should yield as often as he does to the temptation to overstatement. He is of course perfectly entitled to voice the anger which the things he has seen and heard have made him feel. But it only weakens the effect he is seeking to achieve to refer to collective bargaining between unions and managements as ‘the danse macabre of a society that has still not learned how to distribute its rewards with equity and without destructive conflict’, or to the well-meant blunders of council architecture as ‘a crime against humanity’. It is ludicrous to take a passage from Dante’s Inferno as the epigraph for a chapter on Hackney’s ‘dump estates’: the reader is merely left wondering what on earth Harrison would have chosen if he had been writing about Treblinka or Auschwitz. Nor is he as careful as he needs to be to avoid the appearance of having his strictures both ways: on one page he complains about the need for promotion according to ability, but on another about the representation of working-class districts on Hackney Council by better-educated middle-class graduates. Private employers are lectured about the need to ‘head up-market’ and ‘invest in more productive machinery’ at the same time as they are castigated for ‘marginalising’ workers with outdated skills. When British Oxygen pays out redundancies at a level way above the statutory minimum, this is called ‘raising the rewards for egotism to the point where class solidarity was cast to the winds’. And although I’m sure Harrison knows as well as I do the old joke about ‘the scandal that half the population of the country is living on submedian incomes,’ he has let stand a sentence which solemnly proclaims that ‘the privileged lie on the upper side of every divide, the disadvantaged on the lower.’
Something of the same applies also to his suggestions about what ought to be done. Again, he is quite right to make some. To leave the evidence to speak entirely for itself would merely give his readers the option of concluding that it’s all unfortunate but inevitable: all big cities have poorer districts towards which the inadequate and unlucky are bound to gravitate, and London is no worse than it is bound to be. But to expose that conclusion as the complacent fallacy it is, announce of constructive argument is worth a ton of blanket rhetoric. Nobody’s attitudes are going to be effectively influenced by calls for ‘a holistic approach aimed at the whole body of the nation’ or assurances that ‘in a socialist economy, change can be planned so that full employment is maintained.’ Again, it is the more of a pity because Harrison is so much more convincing when he has his feet on the ground. He is admirably level-headed about the problem of relations between the immigrant communities and the police. His diagnosis of the failures of housing policy is informed and telling. The arbitrary and uneven impact of soaring electricity costs on those least able to do anything about them is set out to powerful effect. He sees clearly the reasons for which the social-security system operates in a way which at the same time overburdens its often insufficiently experienced staffs and denies its clients proper redress against maladministration, clerical error and mis-, or more often non-, information. And he puts an unerring finger on the inverse relation between the seriousness of needs and the amount of resources allocated to meet them, whether in housing, health, education, legal advice or protection against crime – a relation which, as the authors of Brighton on the Rocks effectively demonstrate, also holds for the services provided by the local authorities of comfortable Brighton and prosperous East Sussex.
Any talk of resource allocation will, inevitably, divide the readers of these books along party lines. Not even the most eloquent plea for a steeply progressive tax system will persuade those who are convinced that the current shift in favour of the rich – abundantly documented by the contributors to Frank Field’s second Wealth Report – will in due time increase the incomes of the poor. Not even the hardest-hitting indictment of restrictive fiscal policies will move those for whom the defeat of wage-fuelled inflation is the overriding priority in the quest for the grail of sustained real economic growth. Like Harrison’s epigraphs, the QueenSpark Rates Book Group’s invocation of General Pinochet as the bogeyman of monetarism will merely help to excuse their ideological opponents from taking them seriously. What books like this can do, however, is to compel politicians and their constituents of all persuasions to face up to the social costs of what is actually happening in their own areas of responsibility and control. And it needs books like this to do it because, as Harrison is only too well aware, the people who suffer most from the lack of resources directed to the areas of greatest need are those with the least chance of influencing the decisions which lie behind it. They don’t command the votes, the coverage or the organisation which could force attention to their circumstances unless and until they take to the streets; and Left and Right alike will surely echo the ‘alas’ with which Harrison prefaces his observation that it is ‘only riots and the fear of more riots that have got the inner city taken seriously’.
Nobody need pretend that even the most extravagant transfer of resources would cure all the ills that Harrison describes. No amount of taxpayers’ money is going to turn Elaine’s latest boyfriend into a model husband and father or stop Mike from ‘creeping’ again as soon as his mate comes out of jail. It can’t abolish mental illness, or get every deprived child a set of O levels, or ensure that no small firm ever goes into voluntary liquidation, or make every council tenant happy with the points system, or dissolve all the tensions between black adolescents and white. But nor does accepting this mean condoning the present state of affairs. Nor is it only Thatcher-bashing lefties who are bound to agree that in some, at least, of its aspects the present state of affairs is directly attributable to government action. It is this which lends force to the rhetorical question about changing places, and to Harrison’s remark that the better-off can ‘live and die without ever witnessing, let alone understanding, the realities of life on the lower terraces of the social ziggurat’. If it can be shown to anyone willing to confront the evidence that decisions are being taken, whether nationally, regionally or locally, which worsen rather than ameliorate the conditions under which those most in need find themselves compelled to live, then supporters of those decisions can only expect to carry conviction if they are willing to argue that they would continue to support them even if, by a wave of the wand, they were to find themselves through no fault of their own in equivalent need themselves.
This applies, moreover, not just to the fat-cat businessmen or the strident suburban ladies in garden-party hats or the high-salaried popular ideologists of self-reliance. It applies equally to the manual workers on below-average earnings understandably suspicious of any narrowing of the gap between themselves and the workless and/or workshy, and to the poorly-paid clerks on the other side of the social-security counter who are subjected to verbal or even physical abuse from resentful claimants. Whatever Harrison says, and however many people are prepared to listen when he says it, he is not going to get the ‘new consensus on values’ – i.e. Harrison’s values – that he asks for. But if he can get those who don’t share his values, and never will, to test the sincerity of their own, that will have been well worthwhile. You needn’t agree with everything he says. But unless you think his account of life in Hackney is actually false – which it assuredly isn’t – then you owe him an answer as to whether you would think what you do if you had to lead a life like one of ‘them’. If, even as redundant Mr X from the garment trade or crippled Mrs Y from the old people’s estate without the bell-pulls, you would feel that nothing more should be done for you by the state, whether because you agreed that you deserved your lot or because you didn’t believe that anything more could be done, then neither Paul Harrison nor Frank Field nor the QueenSpark Rates Book Group are left with anything more to say to you. But are you quite, quite sure that you would feel that way, Mr Lawson?
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