The hills and dales, the villages and cities of this country are alive with the sounds of electioneering. There is little music in this, but much of what purports to be hard fact – but, in all probability, is nothing more than election padding dressed-up as promise. In the midst of all these words from politicians of various hues, I have been watching some television documentaries, reading some stories and have come across much information that has proved to be most interesting.
In one of the TV programmes, a journalist stood outside a house in a Wolverhampton street and spoke these words: “A young mother called Christine McKenzie lived in this house not long ago. While she was here, pregnant with her second child and without a husband, she was asked fill-in a questionnaire. She was asked: ‘In the past two weeks, have you gone a whole day without a meal?’ She answered ‘Yes’, and added, ‘The baby had some porridge.’ She was asked to list a typical day’s meal. She wrote, ‘Breakfast: nothing. Midday: toast, jam or an egg. Supper: nothing.’ ‘Have you any general comments?’ she was asked. ‘I don’t feel very well,’ she wrote.”
The journalist explained that Christine McKenzie is one person who represents the true crisis in this country. “Tonight”, he commented, “more than two million parents will go to bed hungry in order to give their children something to eat”. He further explained that “the documentary was not about the perennial poor, it was about falling living standards in Britain.” It was, he stated, “that for the first time since the Great Depression, Britain – the so-called Welfare State – is deliberately cutting back the means of survival of its poorest, and their children.”
The journalist further reported that an increasing number of parents could no longer afford to feed their children. The Director of the Child Poverty Action Group informed the journalist that “benefits for the unemployed were falling in real terms.” Other parts of the documentary told how the situation in the country was similar to “Ramsay MacDonald’s Britain in 1931, when mothers in desperation contemplated taking up prostitution in order to feed their children.”
Later in the same programme, the journalist returned to the story of the 21 year-old Christine McKenzie. He explained that he was unable to again feature Christine in the programme, “as she was now dead, having suffered a rare infection shortly after the birth of her second child. Her miserably low social benefits could not keep pace with the uncontrolled rise of food prices,” he said. “This government’s minute increase in social benefits,…are effectively cut-backs, imposing a direct threat to the survival of the growing number of the poor. Unless we regain our sense of priorities, which amount to our civilisation, there will be more Christine McKenzies.”
Another documentary that caught my attention focused on the National Health Service (NHS). The programme recalled the establishment of the NHS in 1948 and the then health minister Aneurin Bevan’s declaration that the “silent suffering of the old, young, chronically sick and handicapped had no place in a civilised society.”
Of particular interest to me about this programme was that it contained a report that a substantial number of senior doctors, from my local hospital in Northampton, had criticised financial cutbacks in the NHS. “The doctors’ statement, issued in desperation, was the first of its kind in Britain,” stated the programme’s commentator. The programme was not just about cutbacks in the NHS. It was about the “dismantling of the NHS, a tearing down of whole sections of what was once Britain’s most civilised post-war achievement – the health service.” The silent suffering had stealthily returned!
Now, you could be reading the above and agreeing that it all sounds familiar. At a time when the political parties are announcing their manifestoes for the forthcoming General Election, you might well be saying that you have heard it all before. This, in fact, might be the truth. What I have recalled in the above is not material intended for the present General Election campaigning. It is taken from television documentaries, reports and books that recall the period in British political and social history between the establishment in 1948 of the Welfare State and the early 1970’s. For many the last fifty years have seen, relatively speaking, little advancement in the general well-being of the people of this nation – particularly the poorest.
Much of the detailed information in the above was taken from the book Breaking the Silence, Anthony Hayward’s excellent summary of UK political and social reality reporting in the early decades of British television. As his book shows, Hayward is well-placed to comment on this history as he has been closely associated with such legendary documentarists as James Cameron, David Munro and John Pilger.
It may be that present-day reporting on the political and social history of the nation, including the General Election, is done by journalists who, as yet, do not have the stature of Cameron, Munro or Pilger. However, to recall some words written in one of the book’s dedications, such reporting needs to have humanity as its subject, the material to be factual, the expression of it to be powerfully emotional, and the context to be present-day.
That being the case, then perhaps someone writing fifty years from now will be able to say that the voting in the 2015 British General Election resulted in the election of a government that truly made a difference for the ordinary people of this country – that the majority were left with more than porridge.
Before and after the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, there was much talk about what effect an independent Scotland would have on the British Constitution. I recently attended a debate whose subject was “The British Constitution after the General Election”. It was a joint venture of The Federal Trust and The Federal Union. The referendum and the debate made me think: what is the British Constitution and where, in any event, could I find a readable copy.
From further investigation I learned that, unlike many other nations, the UK has no single constitutional document. This is sometimes expressed by stating that it has an uncodified or “unwritten” constitution. Much of the British constitution is embodied in written documents, within statutes, court judgments, works of authority and treaties. It seems, moreover, that this lot is constantly changing.
So when I came across the term The New British Constitution and asked what that might be, one answer is that the British constitution, because it is always changing, is always new. Surely this has implications for its interpretation and, therefore, the governance of this nation?
One notable political scientist, Vernon Bogdanor, goes further. His thesis is that “since the election of the Blair government in 1997 the pace and depth of constitutional change have increased to a point where a new shape of the state, though still fuzzy in outline and incomplete in detail, can be discerned and described with some confidence.”
Amongst other things, Bogdanor’s writings sharply focus the allocation of power between Parliament and the courts, a polarity he identifies as the site of a potential constitutional crisis.
If that is the case, then surely the time has come when the British Constitution should be brought together in a discernible written form, so that it is available to be read and understood by more than the politicians, judges, lawyers and political scientists. Perhaps even to be available to the ordinary, intelligent, enquiring, yet patronised, British public – people who are fed on a constant diet of political porridge.