Rejoice! John Redwood has discovered the root cause of poverty

Tory MP's comments on gambling show why casting poverty as the result of individual spiritual failure is seductive - because it gets the government off the hook.

Clear your desk, economics. Sociology, your services are no longer required. One man, working alone, has solved a problem which decades of study in these academic fields could not touch: John Redwood MP has uncovered the root cause of poverty. And, in the casual style of the true intellectual radical, he didn't announce this revelatory finding in a research paper or at a press conference, but with a simple comment on a news story.

Asked about the proliferation of bookmakers in poorer areas, Redwood said,

"I put it down to the fact that poor people believe there's one shot to get rich. They put getting rich down to luck and think they can take a gamble . . . They also have time on their hands. My voters are too busy working hard to make a reasonable income."

There it is, the Redwood explanation of inequality. It's simple, it's comprehensive, it's devoid of empathy and it's seething with contempt for those struggling to get by: if you're poor, it's because you just don't understand that you have to work hard to succeed. You think wealth can just be chanced on as you faff about with betting slips, while the well-off just get out there and strive for their fortunes.

And as a former employee of N. M. Rothschild investment bank, Redwood has had ample opportunity to observe meritocracy in action. Sorry, not meritocracy. I meant to say he's had ample opportunity to observe the assumption of vast riches through the dumb accident of inheritance. That's the one.

Casting poverty as the result of individual spiritual failure is seductive because it gets the government off the hook. It's not George Osborne's catastrophe economics that mean people are left struggling to stretch a shrinking income over an ever-increasing cost of living, it's just in their nature to be poor. Nothing to be done about it.

And Redwood's not the only Conservative to grasp at essentialist explanations for poverty. Iain Duncan Smith loves this stuff, spouting neuroscience-ish guff about how deprived children grow up to have "small brains" (the researcher IDS quoted said the politician had distorted his work), and offering sweeping psychological judgements about unemployed people's reluctance to take risks.

In Redwood's version the original sin of the poor is that they're too willing to gamble, creating a weird composite figure of the Tory version of a poor person: someone who's too cautious to move for a new job, but happy to take the odds of beating the bookies. The idea of a correlation between gambling and unemployment is, of course, nonsense: in 2000, the Gambling Commission found [pdf] that "people in paid work were by far the most likely to have gambled in the past year".

Bookmakers don't appear in deprived areas because the jobless are compulsive gamblers, but because empty shops on ailing high streets mean cheap premises. Your social class does influence the sort of gambling you're likely to take up, though: John Redwood's constituents in Wokingham might be too busy to make bets, but perhaps some of them will squeeze in a visit across the boundary to Reading where they'll soon have a choice of two super casinos.

When it comes to gambling, the house always wins, and there's a similar dreary inevitability in Conservative attitudes to poverty: if you're poor, it doesn't matter whether you take your chances or play it safe: the Tories will find a way to hate and blame you for your circumstances either way.

John Redwood, in happier times. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.