Former Prime Minister David Cameron finally emerged from his shepherd’s hut last week, to inform the world, proudly, that he had volunteered at his local food co-op, the Chippy Larder, and was about to travel to Poland with the supplies they had collected.
For now, try to park the fact that refugee services across Eastern Europe have repeatedly said that what they lack is money, and that they would much rather a bank transfer to heroes who make useless trips with a van full of things that Poland already produces. Because what was most striking was the audacity of Cameron’s volunteerism, which was quickly underline by MP Zarah Sultana – food bank use increased by 2,612% while he was prime minister. There are so many ways he could have been socially useful without rubbing his nose in the poverty he created (he could have volunteered with a dog, for example, or worked with bees) that it cannot be construed as trolling.
But that’s what much of life was like under the coalition and, later, the Tory government: policies that didn’t make sense because they were cruel but not, from the perspective of the government , even particularly economical. This would then be followed by deliberate provocation – Iain Duncan Smith saying it was perfectly easy to live on £53 a week, in fact; or Lord Freud stepped in to say that food bank use was on the rise because food was free and the demand for free products was potentially endless. Seeing Cameron down to his old nose tricks makes me think provoking outrage was one of the tactics all along.
That number – the 2,612% rise – doesn’t tell the whole story, partly because it’s a bit too huge to comprehend, but mostly because the truth is simpler. Before 2010, food banks did not exist. Food stamps were seen as a particular wickedness designed by Americans, to strip low-wage earners of their dignity. There were niche experiments with a copy system in the UK for asylum seekers – where their absolutely meager benefits were delivered on an Azure card, with which you could buy bread but not, for example, pencils. But the general principle of Social Security was that if you couldn’t afford to feed your children or, for that matter, yourself, something had gone wrong.
Undoubtedly, there were people before 2010 for whom things had gone wrong, who struggled to put food on the table – the Trussell Trust food delivery charity had been operating since 1997. But food banks weren’t an essential part of social security, they were a palliative emergency for people in very difficult and, above all, rare circumstances.
If a million people were using them (as it was in 2015), or two and a half million (as it is now), it would have previously been understood as the system not working. This, by the way, has been perfectly obvious to all of us since the onset of austerity. There was no shortage of people who looked at their policy proposals – to cut benefits, impose penalties, introduce universal credit with its huge delays – and join the dots in saying that it will cause real life changes, perhaps life- threatening difficulties.
The thing that took us absolutely years to catch up to, however, was that difficulties weren’t a bug – it was a feature. So we kept getting new ideas about heartlessness, which they kept fueling with new insensitivities, obviously thinking, “When are these donuts going to get it? We are no longer in the realm of the “heart”. The Conservatives were much more rational, in a way, than any of their opponents. They were just doing what they were doing. We were like people whose corner store had turned into a real estate agent, walking in every day yelling that we couldn’t find the sausages.
Even knowing all of this, even after living through the last decade, I still can’t get over the picture – David Cameron, in a food bank, smiling. The man’s brass neck.