A homeless Portuguese man, just laid off from his seasonal job, sat outside the church before the Christmas carol service. It was a sensible choice as the church was packed and he went away with a capful of money and some information on where to find food and accommodation. He was a reminder of the difference between want and need.
It is difficult for people of my generation to enter fully into the spirit of today’s Christmas, a season that seems to start earlier each year and is heralded by an orgy of selling and buying, celebrated by tearing open far too many parcels, overeating and drinking, and ended often enough by disappointment and family quarrels. A season of wanting more. Not so, though, for the homeless and for those rendered homeless by warfare and floods, who perhaps from the actions of those who give them aid and shelter may have a better feel for the meaning of the religious rather than the secular festival. For them it has been a season of need.
If we are lucky enough to have friends or family who ask us what we would like for Christmas, we confront this question: what do I want? Or is it, what do I need? For the moment, I am one of the very fortunate ones who wants for nothing. I have what I need and do not covet a yacht, a second home, or an island in the Caribbean. I do, however, recognise that as I age I shall develop needs, either personal or familial, as have many of my friends. I want nothing more but shall probably need something later.
Children brought up in a time of great austerity, as was my generation and as are many today both in our country and among the hordes of refugees and dispossessed, know the difference between want and need. Basic needs are universal among animals – food, water, shelter, access to learning, companionship, protection from disease and enemies, warmth, productive activity. If we have these, we can say that we want for nothing; the rest is flummery.
Provision of access to basic needs is properly accepted as being the responsibility of the state in a civilised society and most people now living in Britain have since 1945 become quite used to this. We expect the state to ensure that we have access to all these needs, and that is why we complain and blame the politicians when our cities flood, our local schools can’t take our children, or the NHS keeps us waiting or doesn’t provide the latest anti-cancer drug. That is why politicians, confronted by the reality of disasters, promise to do everything that is necessary to prevent them happening again. We have become used to the state providing for our basic needs.
Many people seem to have lost sight of the very obvious fact that this provision costs money. As we grumble at having to wait a few months for our hip to be replaced (something that wasn’t possible 50 years ago), we complain at having to pay tax. Perhaps we think paying tax is for others, not for us or our company. Perhaps we send our children to expensive schools and go to private doctors, and resent having to pay taxes for other people’s support. We complain about the pot holes in the roads and about refuse removal while we resent paying the community charge. It doesn’t make sense.
Our failure to make the connection between taxation and state provision has led politicians, who increasingly seem to represent the well-off, to promise more provision and lower taxes in order to persuade us in turn to elect them. Their explanation of how they will achieve this is based on two unproven hypotheses and is probably fallacious; that lower taxes stimulate greater industrial activity and employment, and that the more wealth created, the more trickles down to those most in need. This low tax policy has led to an extraordinary accumulation of wealth at the top, a flood of money into property, financial starvation of local authorities, and impoverishment and homelessness of increasing numbers of young people. All this in one of the world’s richest countries.
Over the last year the world has changed in a predictable way. The expected revolt by those left behind has started and has been exploited by demagogues; an anti-intellectual mood has been promoted and given credence by the popular press. The demagogues, backed by extremely wealthy people, have caught the public mood of discontent and turned it into a political movement which has put Britain at risk of leaving the European Union and the United States at risk of civil strife.
Across Europe, isolationist and xenophobic parties are gaining ground, protests by right and left are growing and there is an increasingly ugly mood amongst the people. Yet the issues that threaten us and our ways of life are impossible for any one country, however rich, to control. Climate change, gross inequalities of wealth, infectious disease, warfare (and its modern counterpart, terrorism); all require cooperation with our neighbours, trade and treaties, agreements to level playing fields. It is a fact of nature that there is safety in sticking together – think of shoals of fish or flights of birds.
The European Union is far from perfect but has as much democracy as the UK with its House of Lords and the hidden influence of very rich people and their lobbyists. There is no reason to believe it cannot be reformed as it has been in the past, but it cannot be reformed by those outside. We have now effectively lost our voice in this and already made ourselves a pariah state. We have acceded to the absurd idea that in order to obtain our 'sovereignty', a key concept of out-voters (Brexit is a word that ignores its effect on Northern Ireland), we should ignore the fundamental concept of parliamentary sovereignty obtained when Charles I lost his head. Arguably, this now includes the sovereignty of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish equivalents.
This Christmas will for many people across the world, Christian or not, be a time of misery. We in the rich West have made an important contribution to this by exploitation of people and resources and by contributing weapons to unstable countries. There is little that individuals can do, but we have votes and the majority of us can afford some gift to charities that are trying to address the bigger picture. My wish for Christmas is that we think more of those who are in need and less of what we want.