Some claim to have detected a new tough-mindedness in Britain towards the welfare system, brought on by the economic crisis. The latest British social attitudes survey certainly suggests a bracing scepticism about the usefulness of state spending on benefits. Apparently 54 per cent of the population now believes that welfare should be cut to encourage recipients to stand on their own feet. Twenty years ago, the proportion was 26 per cent.
Impelled by nosiness – what do the neighbours think? – I recently agreed to chair a discussion about “hoodies and oligarchs” at the Brook Green festival of books – a hyper-local literary jamboree cooked up in the parish hall to brighten dark nights while raising money for charity.
A group of miscellaneous squeezed middlers – plus the mayor, the MP, and the parish priest – gathered to hear two eminent social commentators, Ferdinand Mount and Harriet Sergeant, anatomise the self-contained bubbles at the extremes of British society: he, the high pay and elephantine entitlement at the top (the oligarch bit); she, the social exclusion and lawlessness at the bottom (the hoodies).
Fielding questions from the floor, I found it hard to detect the change in attitudes exposed in the survey. My neighbours seemed more interested in having a go at the greed and materialism of those (slightly) further up the tree.
It wasn’t just the usual suspects – the bankers and hedge funders – who got it in the neck. A business-school lecturer bemoaned the fact that such schools typically tell would-be entrepreneurs to sell their companies quickly for top dollar rather than fretting about the interests of customers and employees. When Mount said, in passing, that the department store chain John Lewis (“a company I revere almost to distraction”) did not pay the “London living wage” to its contracted cleaners, the distress was palpable. (“Should we cut up our charge cards now?” “No, not till after Christmas.”)
The hoodies, on the other hand, had a relatively easy ride – possibly because last year’s riots bypassed Brook Green in favour of Ealing. Sergeant’s suggestion that misguided welfare policies might have contributed to the creation of an underclass earned an audible tut. And when she said that offering council housing to young single mothers acted as a perverse incentive for girls to bear children they neither particularly wanted nor were able to care for, an uneasy stillness descended.
There might have been an element of class embarrassment in all this. Conspicuous among the locals, there was one individual present who knew the hoodie world Sergeant described far more intimately than she did: M, a young black man with whom she is now writing a television script based on his experiences on the mean streets of south Norwood. They hope it will be London’s answer to The Wire. “It’s a real collaboration,” she told me. “It charts all the ways in which his world and mine intersect: sex, crime and politics.” M listened intently to the discussion and approached me afterwards for my business card, which he studied thoughtfully. I asked Sergeant later what M used to do before writing. “Armed robbery.”
Local oligarchs, too, cause social problems, especially if your child – say – goes to the same school as – say – a young Abramovich. What present to buy when invited to some Russian bigshot’s daughter’s 15th birthday bash? And how to react when the party theme is “kidnap” and each girl is to be chained with a padlock that can be unlocked only by a partygoer of the opposite sex?
But this is kids’ stuff. If you want to see the real deal, you have to go further afield, possibly as far as Georgia. Since last month the country has been run by a genuine gold-plated oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose net worth is a third of the country’s gross domestic product. Ivanishvili entered politics a year ago by buying all the opposition parties and consolidating them into a personal movement. He lives in a vast Bond-baddie steel and glass palace on a mountain overlooking the capital, Tbilisi. So concerned about security is he that when his children wanted to go to the zoo, he built his own in the grounds.
In Tbilisi last month for the elections, I met a former City banker who had returned home to Georgia a decade ago, subsequently (if briefly) becoming prime minister. Lado Gurgenidze clearly had little time for Britain, which he saw as a basket-case rapidly turning into a socialist state on a par with the old Soviet Union. “You are committing a slow act of economic suicide,” was his verdict, delivered with a world-weary shake of the head. If he hadn’t given up on the UK entirely, he added, it was only because he’d just read this welfare stuff in the British social attitudes survey. “I was very surprised but maybe things can change for the better.” Well, we shall see.
I have for some weeks now been on a diet. Not a vanity-fuelled mid-life-crisis diet. Oh no. This is a proper medical experiment, organised by huge brains at Imperial College who want to know if fish oil capsules make you – or, rather, me – less likely to empty an entire box of cheesy snacks in one go. I have been their guinea pig for what feels like years, although they issued me with calorie charts only in September.
The obvious point about diets is that you spend more of your life feeling hungry than you did before you started dieting. The less obvious point is that your interest in food grows when you can’t eat it. My colleagues have now diagnosed me as a classic “feeder”.
According to medical science – and magazines devoured by teenage girls – “feeding” is common among office-bound dieters. Tormented by their own cravings, which they cannot satisfy, they nourish their sense of self-worth by offering workmates treats they deny themselves. One owlish fellow at a nearby desk has started making the sign of the cross when I approach. My excuse is simple. My diet allows two Kit Kat fingers daily; the office vending machine serves only the four-finger kind.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer