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Britain’s Financial Squeeze – Have We Forgotten What Hardship Really Means?

April 11, 2011

There are times when newspapers seem to be edited by people totally devoid of a sense of irony. Yesterday’s Sunday Times – my favourite British Sunday newspaper – leads on the front page with two stories of hardship.

In the main story, Hala Jaber reports from Misrata on the cost of Gaddafi’s bombardment of the city. She tells of a desperate humanitarian crisis in which children have borne the brunt – of kids in an orphanage cowering in a basement, and of a surgeon’s unsuccessful attempt to save two sisters struck by bullets in their parents’car.

In the second story, The Sunday Times reports that according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research, families in Britain are “facing the biggest peacetime squeeze on their finances since 1921”. The report goes on to say that average household disposable incomes are set to decline by 2%.

So as we Brits tucked into our breakfasts yesterday morning, we were asked to feel compassion for a city where babies are dying, and then to consider the terrible news that we might have to cut back on our foreign holidays this year.

We could look at things in a different way. We could celebrate the fact that at in no year in peacetime has our disposable income declined by more than 2%, and that in fact during most of those years our income has grown. We could also remember the story most of us learned at school about the Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat years following seven lean ones. Whatever we British have been through over the past three years hardly compares with rivers of blood, plagues of locusts and the various other disasters that visited themselves upon the hapless Egyptians.

And when we leave a couple of slices of toast uneaten, we could remember when our parents, teachers or dinner ladies told us to “think of the starving millions”.

Of course those statistics for Britain don’t tell the whole story. There will be many people who will suffer far more than a 2% loss in disposable income. There is and will continue to be real hardship for people who have lost their jobs and perhaps their homes as well.

But occasionally the juxtaposition of two stories – intentional or otherwise – reminds us that countries like Britain sit much further from the brink of disintegration than many nations in whose affairs we take it upon ourselves to become involved. And a measure of the space between our national perspective and that of other nations close to the edge of disaster – man-made or otherwise – is the widely held opinion that charity begins at home.

The UK tabloids have been complaining about the aid programmes that Britain is funding for programmes in countries like Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria.  Why? Because at home we are being asked to sacrifice a few libraries, hospital wards and drug rehabilitation services.

It’s been about seventy years since Britain faced a clear and present threat to its entire fabric as a nation. A few of us will remember what it was like to be bombed on a daily basis, and to wait in fear for a German invasion force to come across the English Channel.

It’s about fifty years since we and just about every other country in the developed world faced obliteration in a nuclear holocaust as Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off over missiles in Cuba.

It seems to me that many members of today’s economically active generations  – who have never experienced physical danger and existential threat on the scale known to their parents and grandparents – view the world only in terms of how events will affect them personally.

And Britain is not alone in this. My business partner in the US told me the other day that the main coverage of the Japanese crisis in recent days consisted of acres of column inches about the infinitesimal rise in levels of radioactive iodine identified on the East Coast – a rise that is a million miles away from being a public health concern.

If we in Britain care as much today about a 2% personal haircut as we do about the suffering in Libya and the diversion of a tiny slice of our taxes to help people who face oblivion every day, isn’t it a sad reflection of how disconnected many of us have become from realities beyond our doorsteps?

And doesn’t that explain why we react with surprise when those realities come back and bite us in the form of oil price increases, international terrorism and economic migration?

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