The rightwing instinct is that all poverty is hardship – anyone can fight their way out. But some forms of poverty can’t be dodged
The Duke of Wellington once made me cry. I was sitting in a prep school dining hall, where we also sometimes studied, and I read in our textbook a passage where he had reacted to the horrible distress among workers and peasants in Britain after the Napoleonic wars – starvation and repression that led to the Peterloo massacre. His advice was that the poor should put curry powder in their drinking water. His troops, he said, had found this a useful substitute for food when on their campaigns in India.
When I read this I was at once seized by the most choking, terrible sadness. First my throat and then the whole building smelled thick with snot in a most disgusting way. I had to rush to the lavatories and rub my face with cold water before I could breathe and stop weeping.
Life at boarding school is full of such moments, but what made this one remarkable was not just its quality of physical horror: the emotion I felt was overwhelmingly pity for the Duke because everyone would see him as heartless whereas in fact he was trying to be practical. Sometimes there is nothing to eat. Sometimes curry powder in water is the best you can do. Of course, this was also bound up in my mind with the fact that you couldn’t, in those days, get curry powder in the English provinces. I hated England.
In those days, at the Dragon school, the food could be so awful that curry powder in water would have been better. We were given milk in bottles that held a third of a pint, and were stored, in crates, without refrigeration. This meant in summer that the good milk was tinged with sourness; the bad milk was practically acid, and the worst milk had entirely separated into curds and whey. It all got drunk.
Yet this kind of physical hardship had nothing much to do with poverty. Our parents were paying good money to have us educated there and the school was not particularly heartless. It just had an ethos that paid little account to physical pleasure. There was an expectation that we should learn to endure discomfort. It was absolutely not the same as a belief that discomfort was all life would hold.
The distinction between hardship and poverty makes sense of much discussion about austerity. Hardship is an exceptional state, but poverty is a life sentence from which you can only be released on license, and can never know when. It’s very clearly illustrated by the life of Jocasta Innes, who died last week. Her Pauper’s cookbook was a bestseller in the 70s. It wasn’t in the least bit glamorous – this was before celebrity cooks – and much of the food in it was unpleasant. But it was larky, practical and full of encouragement.
She wrote it in conditions of considerable hardship: she had left one husband and two children to live with a penniless novelist and have two more children, whom she fed on a very small budget. But she had a degree from Cambridge, she had been privately educated. She knew things might get better, and they did.
The rightwing instinct is that all poverty can be reinterpreted as hardship: with sufficient energy and determination, anyone can fight their way out of it. This isn’t entirely false. In fact it’s obviously half true, and a great deal of the emotional energy of rightwing rhetoric is generated by outrage when people seem to be denying this obvious truth.
Looking back, a lot of my training in school could be understood as learning to see the world in terms of hardships that could be overcome, rather than deprivations that must be stoically endured. And this was good and useful.
None the less, there are some deprivations that simply have to be endured, some forms of poverty that can’t be dodged. Talent and luck are unequally distributed among determined strivers. Few single mothers can write bestselling books, or start a decorating business on the back of them.
So a proper welfare system would need to distinguish between poverty and hardship and apply different remedies. Water and curry powder for some: real food for others. This is certainly how welfare is supposed to function in Sweden. I suspect it is what Iain Duncan Smith is trying to do right now, with such resounding inadequacy. And perhaps it can’t be done in any really satisfying way. Perhaps the people who thought the Duke of Wellington a heartless bastard were quite right.