I’ve just got back from a week’s caravan holiday in Devon. We did it on a tight budget and we went with three other families from Barnsley. One family has seven boys, aged between three and 17, and their mother could feed an army on baked potatoes.
We hadn’t even packed the cars to set off before the men started a discussion about the high price of a pint in the clubhouse – £3.55 for lager, and almost a fiver for bitter. Drastic action was called for. Cans were purchased in bulk, shipped down and secreted into the clubhouse under cover of the night, with the justification that those kind of prices were a rip-off. You can take the families out of Barnsley, but you can’t take Barnsley out of us lot.
Saving money? We invented it. Our parents brought us up to be hard-working and thrifty and drilled into us the Barnsley mantra – “how much??!” When the Government told us we had to practise austerity a few years back we just shrugged our shoulders and carried on as we always have.
However, as we strolled around the nearby town and peeked into the restaurants and bars, one question struck me: whatever happened to this austerity? There was me thinking we were all on an economy drive, but where was all this money coming from? I know the economy is supposed to be on an upturn, but the Chancellor still tells us we have to count every penny.
Yet here were well-heeled couples tucking into lobster at £15 a pop, each. Here were whole families sitting down together stuffing their faces with knickerbocker glories at £6 a throw. Here was a hotel – beautiful, admittedly – which charged £275 a night for a sea-view room, and it was full. And there was me thinking that no one had any money any more. Someone must have it. And it was certainly getting spent.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I got home. And you don’t have to go far in Barnsley for it to hit you square in the face. You only have to nip into the town centre to see the families trailing from pound shop to charity shop. No holidays for these people. Not even a knickerbocker glory. So I’ve come to a conclusion. Official austerity does still exist, to a painful degree. But it’s affecting those who can least afford it. It affects those who must exist on the minimum wage, or who find themselves in a job in which their hours are not guaranteed week to week. It affects those who live a precariously balanced life in which two or three pounds slashed from their benefits every week can mean the difference between eating a meal or not. It affects those who, with no recourse to any other form of credit, fall prey to payday lenders who charge exorbitant rates of interest.
When George Osborne told us at the start of the year that we faced “a year of hard truths” he was right. However, what has become apparent is that the “hard truths” don’t affect people like him. The privileged position of politicians who make decisions which affect the lives of millions of people entirely insulates them from reality. This might be a privileged position, but it is also a dangerous one. It means that their view of the world is entirely distorted. They became so removed from reality that they don’t even know the average price of a weekly family shop, as Ed Miliband discovered to his cost earlier this year.
A recent report by the Money Advice Trust charity reveals a record rise in the number of people it is having to help with debts on basic household bills. Calls to its advice service, the National Debtline, have risen 140 per cent since 2007, before the financial crisis began. It also reports a “radical shift” in the type of debt problems it is being asked to help with.
These are not coming from spendthrifts frittering away their earnings running up credit card bills and store credit. These are desperately worried individuals who can’t pay their council tax, their gas bill or their water bill. These are people for whom the idea of a holiday is a distant dream.
How many holidays did David Cameron take this year? I’ve lost count. Do you think he and Samantha even think about the price of a pint in the clubhouse? Of course they don’t. They have inherited wealth and a guaranteed income. The daily struggles which millions of people in this country face are entirely alien to them.
As the Conservative Party prepares itself to fight a general election, those in charge of the campaign and manifesto would do well to remember this. When they talk of austerity they might be able to come up with fancy explanations involving the interest rate and foreign exchange, but to instil it in ordinary people goes beyond irony. There is one rule for them, and one rule for the rest of us. And back in Barnsley with a bump, all I can see is the chasm between us and them growing ever wider.