A Nation of No Second ChancesWhy Does Britain Have Such a Harsh Perception of Poverty?
Maheen Behrana examines new evidence about the attitudes of Brexit voters towards those suffering deprivation
New research from the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe has highlighted some perhaps surprising facts about the individuals who voted for Brexit. It found that around half of all ‘Leave’ voters were comfortably off, and that there was a huge diversity of opinion when it came to race and immigration.
While the report identified many differences of opinion among Brexit supporters, it did however reveal that many Leave voters coalesced around one common belief: antipathy towards seemingly ‘lazy’ British people who would not (in their narrative) take on the low-paid jobs that many immigrants come here to do. Many surveyed were dismissive of poverty, linking it to ‘scrounging’, poor decision making and a ‘something-for-nothing culture’.
Time and again, we see these attitudes surface among the British public. A King’s College London study, released in February this year, found that nearly half of Britons believe that those who have lost their job during the pandemic have done so because of their performance at work.
It seems that Britons cling to the idea that we live in a meritocracy – a society where your life outcomes are determined by how hard you work and how ‘deserving’ you are. A term used repeatedly by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, meritocracy forms the basis of the pretence that poverty and wealth are opposite ends of a spectrum of achievement determined by hard work and ability.
Of course, this is not how British society works.
If a travel business has gone bust as a result of COVID-19 restrictions over the past year, it is ludicrous to suggest that all the employees who have lost their jobs are lazy or feckless.
Nevertheless, this narrative seems to suit the Conservative Party. Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron made several comments suggesting that the poorest and most vulnerable were disadvantaged through some fault of their own. A speech he made in Glasgow in 2008 highlighted this lack of empathy; he memorably stated that “social problems are often the consequences of the choices people make”.
Such a statement is semantically self-defeating. Problems wouldn’t be ‘social’ if they were solely down to the behaviour of individuals. But that didn’t seem to matter. When Cameron was elected as Prime Minister in 2010, voters welcomed a Government that was pointedly disdainful of poverty and dismissive of its causes.
Indeed, sadly, it seems that many Britons align with Cameron. But when so much of life flies in the face of this narrative, you start to wonder why.
Accepting Your Lot
Despite occasional warm rhetoric suggesting the opposite, Britain is not a country of second chances.
Children whittle down their school subjects at the tender age of 13, and sit life-defining GCSEs at the age of 16 – five years after some have embarked on an equally life-defining 11-plus exam. If they remain in school, children in the UK study just three or four subjects by the age of 17 – roughly half the number of their European counterparts. UK students who go to university tend to undertake shorter degrees and enter the job market sooner than their peers in Europe. Funding for adult education has been slashed in recent years.
There is a social condition in Britain, whereby our apparent life ‘choices’ are forced upon us at an early age, or through economic necessity. Our education and employment systems leave little space for reflection on our studies or introspection before embarking on a career path.
When we lose our way, we are often obliged to pursue the route we have chosen – because to change course is far too costly, and will upset the precarious economic equilibrium of modern Britain. Half of working renters are one pay-cheque away from losing their homes; this situation doesn’t leave any room for missteps or reconsiderations.
Thus, it seems that a large number of Brits, whether poor or wealthy, find that their lives are defined by a kind of constraint. Even if we achieve a supposed stability, we have little room for manoeuvre – and such stability may be built upon accepting conditions which prompt life-long regret.
This predicament has perhaps led to a society which perceives hardship not as something to be avoided but as a right of passage. The people who scorn British workers for rejecting the exploitative work that is often done by immigrants may not really have an idea of what that work entails, but they are likely to feel that in order to survive in this country, people must endure circumstances that have made them distinctly unhappy.
Yet for many people in poverty, they have not been given a choice to succeed. Strife alone will not alleviate the circumstances of a single mother on Universal Credit who left school at 16, or the person who can’t find an entry-level job, because they all seem to require prior experience.
It’s the same for the long-term unemployed. Circumstances of illness, insufficient childcare and improper educational support – to name but a few – conspire to leave people with no other option than merely to accept what they have been given.
Poverty is not a choice – it is defined by factors external to the individual. But until society as a whole accepts this idea, successive governments will be only too happy to perpetuate it, as long as it continues to win elections and absolve those in power.
what the papers don’t say
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