Gerhart Hauptmann´s 1911 novel „Die Ratten“ (Engl. „The Rats“), set in a deprived borough of Berlin, was a powerful critique of a concept of morality that ignored the conditions people live in. Its characters are not evil people, and yet despair and misery drive some of them to commit vile acts. There is a passage where one of the villains is asked whether he had no sense of decency, to which he replies that it is hard to uphold decency when one’s stomach is grumbling.
It was utterly predictable that the usual suspects would try to rewrite the London riots in Hauptmann-style, romanticising the rioters as the victims of poverty, inequality, as well as capitalism and consumerism more generally. The one looter who spoke on BBC radio on Wednesday morning, trying to justify his acts, phrased his excuses less eloquently than Seumas Milne did in the Guardian. But his statement that these were the acts of people who “come from nothing and got nothing” were apparently convincing to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who was interviewed a few minutes later and said the young man was “partially right”.
Except he wasn’t. Let’s have a look at the blight of those who “come from nothing and got nothing”. The standard rate of Income Support for a non-working single mother with one teenager is currently £562.60 per month. On top of that comes Child Benefit, currently at £87.97 per month, and Child Tax Credit at £168.90, assuming only the most basic rate. The rate of Housing Benefit depends on where she lives; it is £1000 per month in inner southeast London, £1213.33 in inner east London and £1256.67 in central London (which includes Camden and most of Hackney). Council Tax is also covered. This is at current rates, meaning after the ‘savage cuts’, and ignores other benefits which are a bit trickier to qualify for.
According to OECD figures, the UK spends 3.5% of GDP on family benefits, cash and kind. That is more than in Sweden, more than in Norway, more than in Finland, more than in the Netherlands, more than in Belgium, more than in Germany and more than in Austria.
These are just input figures. Looking at outcomes, data from Eurostat show that virtually every household in the United Kingdom can afford a washing machine, a fridge, a central heating, a TV, a telephone and, of course, a diet with meat, poultry or fish. That is more than the rich folks in Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel had.
A figure that keeps being cited is the 75% cuts in some youth services. The problem with that figure is that it depends on what exactly you define as a youth service. For example, the Borough of Hackney runs seven leisure centres providing a host of activities at subsidised rates. There are many special discounts, including for young people. But since they are open to all age groups, they are not, strictly speaking, a youth service provider.
It would be a ridiculous thing to say that there is no poverty in London, or that there are no real sources for frustration. But there is nothing which could, by any stretch of the imagination, relativise what has happened in London or other cities. Attempts to insinuate otherwise should be exposed for the cheap political opportunism that they are.