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.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt