Laurie Penny: Why should we pretend to be delighted by Kate Middelton's pregnancy?

I don't know the Duke or Duchess of Cambridge, but I do know too many couples who can't afford to have children.

When the occupation of the uterus of the Duchess of Cambridge was officially announced, the Prime Minister declared himself "delighted". I’ll bet he was. The news couldn’t have come at a better time. Coverage of the Glorious Impregnation of the Magical Vagina of Monarchial Succession has knocked our woeful economy conveniently off the front pages, and distracted attention from the omnishambles that was once the British fourth estate in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. Now we’re in for months of name speculation and bump-watching. It’s as if the House of Windsor were just another soap opera, rather than an institution that continues to confiscate full democratic enfranchisement from seventy million other humans living on this rainy little island. Never mind, though. Babies are cute, and we have to wish the Royal Couple well. Or else. 

Even the most hardened republicans, those world-weary activists and opinionators who still get the guillotine gleam in their eyes after a few beers, even they feel obliged - before declaring the Monarchy a rotten anti-democratic monster squatting with intent over British civil society - to announce how happy they are for the Royal parents-to-be. That’s what we’re all meant to say: how very, very happy we are for the prince and his pretty princess, so young and so in love, and now with a baby on the way. I’m going to go out on a limb here and count myself one of many thousands who didn’t feel any particular surge of joy at the news. I’ve never met these two people, and probably never will. Like most of us, I only know what they’re supposed to represent, which is power, and the ways in which power and privilege justify themselves to the rest of us with schmaltz and parades and a buggerload of bunting.

When I think of William and Kate and how happy we’re supposed to be for them, I can’t help but think of another young couple I know, around the same age as the Royals, and living only a few miles away, on the other side of the river - friends of mine whose fairytale wedding I attended earlier this year. It really was a fairytale, in its own ordinary way. They met when they were just teenagers, on an internet chat forum a decade ago. They fell in love, crossed the country to be together, but were both too young and messed-up to make it work, fell apart, lost touch. Then, ten years later, they rediscovered each other through mutual friends, and it was as if all those years melted away: they moved in together, got engaged. This summer I watched them have their first dance in the room above the local pub with all their friends, with him bent at a strange loving angle to reach her mouth for a kiss, because he’s a lanky sod and she’s under five feet tall. Now the two of them want to have a baby. But they can’t.

Not because of any physical complications. Because of circumstance. Because he’s on night shifts and she’s in full-time further education, and despite working so hard they’ve barely seen each other since their honeymoon, they can’t afford a flat big enough for the two of them and their cats, let alone for three. The welfare benefits they rely on to keep them in their home have been slashed. They don’t know when, if ever, they’re going to be able to afford to have children together. 

Then there’s another young couple I used to know, again just a few years younger than Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. They met at college, fell in love, were planning to get married and have children, but one of them suffered from a painful physical disability that worsened the more she worked to build them a home together. Her partner watched her struggle to claim disability benefits, like millions of others, watched her self-esteem slowly eroded by the gruelling process of applying for sickness support under the new punitive welfare system, and failing, time and time again. She watched her slide into depression and despair. They could only afford one small room to share. There was no money left over for them to leave the house, not even for a pair of tickets to the cinema. Sometimes young love survives that sort of hardship, and sometimes it shrivels. They broke up, and barely speak anymore.

This is a story that’s being repeated, with different actors and the same terse, tragic theme, all over the country this year. These are the love stories you don’t see, the ones where poverty and hard city winters and the heart-hammering unfairness of life in modern Britain get in between a young girl and her prince or princess. Because the truth is that fairytales are harder and harder to find in this country. Do not be fooled by the flag-wagging and fist-pumping. We are becoming a colder, meaner place, and love, a force that is supposed to be more powerful even than class, is harder than ever to fight for.

Next year, about 750,000 babies will be born in the United Kingdom. At least two hundred and fifty thousand of them will be born into poverty.  They will grow up with no idea how they’re going to afford education, or housing, or any of the things even their parents took to some extent for granted. Those children, and their parents, will spend the next 20 years watching another infant grow up in unimaginable privilege and luxury in the pages of their daily papers.

The lesson is: know your place. The lesson is: know your class, and its limits, and who, ultimately, is in charge. In modern Britain, despite what you might read in the international press, fairytales are getting thin on the ground.

Kate: the Duchess of Cambridge. (Photo: Getty)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder