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Maybe Scrooge was right Windy lectures on structural inequality won't change society, but kindness might

Richard Wilson as the ultimate bad guy/good guy Credit: Comic Relief/Comic Relief /Getty

Richard Wilson as the ultimate bad guy/good guy Credit: Comic Relief/Comic Relief /Getty


December 3, 2020   5 mins

In the Fraser household, the debate over the Christmas menu began a couple of months ago. With the pudding mixed and set aside back in October, so began the annual turkey discussion. It’s a dry old bird, with little to recommend it taste-wise. Shall we go off-piste, try something different? With a sense of daring, we ask the same question, year after year, but inevitably fall back on the same old traditional menu.

The children expect it, notwithstanding the fact that they push their sprouts around the plate. And I am too much a fan of Dickens not to get all misty eyed about Scrooge’s heart-warming gift to the Cratchit family. Moreover, the idea that the majority of people up and down the land are eating something like the same thing engenders a spirit of national solidarity, perfect for Christmas. I don’t even know if this is true anymore — but I like the idea that it is. So Turkey it is, and somewhere out on a chilly, former Norfolk airfield, some poor overfed bustard has his card marked.

As we contemplate this annual orgy of waist-expanding excess, my church, right next door to the rectory, is filling up with piles of tins and packets upon packets of dried pasta and breakfast cereal. As I walk the few paces from my own front door to that of the church, my world changes. Bags of groceries have been sorted for collection. People come by furtively and fill up their wheely trollies.

It is not quite the same as that recent heart-breaking BBC report from Burnley, where hungry children are ripping open the bags of food that the church brings to their door. But there is hunger here, too, and quiet desperation, and a sense of failure. Lockdown has taken its toll on people: jobs lost, relationships strained, too many funerals attended. No, we won’t all be eating the same thing. Of course I feel guilt at the contrast. Most of us should.

“You voted Tory, it’s all on you” comes the Twitter response, “Save us your crocodile tears.” This, however, I do not feel so conflicted about. Even before I abandoned the Labour Party, vowing never to return, I was scornful of those who subcontract their social responsibility to the ballot box, returning back from a five-minute trip to the polling station to comfortable untroubled lives with the added glow of inner virtue, their work now done.

Even many of those who live their politics 24/7 often seem to believe that right-think absolves them from all the practical activity of caring for those less fortunate than ourselves. Many despise charity or the practical activity of social benevolence, believing it shouldn’t be necessary (being the proper role of the state) and that it reinforces unequal social relations. The Cratchets need a government with the appropriate economic policies; they should have no need of a converted Scrooge.

This is only partly right. Yes, there absolutely is a proper moral outrage to be felt towards attacks on the welfare state and to so-called benefit reform. But nonetheless, I especially dislike the way that this sort of politics can be mobilised against kindness. Towards the end of his life, Lenin went to see a dramatised version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and walked out of the play in disgust at Dickens’ “middle-class sentimentality”. The Left-wing case against Dickens is that he believed social problems could be addressed by the prosperous becoming better people, rather than by a revolution in social or economic relations.

Orwell was particularly harsh on Dickens about all this, arguing that his great fear of revolution (The Tale of Two Cities) blunted his famous hatred of injustice (Oliver Twist). “It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure”, he argued, and that “a ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo.” And there is some truth in this: Dickens’ visceral belief in social justice was not built on some abstract political theory but on the need for people to be kinder to each other. And here Orwell points to what he calls the perpetual battle between the revolutionary and the moralist, who are “constantly undermining one another”.

I admit it, I have a Dickens-like vision of what constitutes a good Christmas, indeed probably of the good life in general. A fire on, children running around my feet, the smell of something roasting in the oven, my glass charged with a good claret. I share with him the idea that food bespeaks a kind of domestic, yes perhaps bourgeois, contentment. Which is probably why I recently set up a website devoted to food, wine and faith.

On Monday evenings there is an open invitation for people to come together and eat on Zoom, menus suggested by some of our bishops, wine pairings by the Sunday Times wine critic Will Lyons. It was intended as a small gesture of mutual solidarity in these dark times, for people who may be on their own, or for those who just fancied eating together, sharing the joys of the table. But some have expressed disapproval, thinking it inappropriate that some people get together to enjoy their food whilst others go without.

In her recent book Scoff, Pen Vogler powerfully reminded us that food is often code for class, especially in Britain, “with its innate social function and attendant rituals, as a way of firing up rivalry, envy and social unease and conveying the niceties of where we all sit on the social ladder”. Perhaps this is why the Brits find it so easy to scoff at each other for their food choices, for the way they eat, and for the politics behind it.

In Great Expectations, the now wealthy Pip returns home where he “formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast-beef and plumb pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension, upon everyone in the village”. As Vogler explains, both beef and plumb pudding have long been a symbol of charitable benevolence, the squire sharing his bounty with the peasantry.

Washington Irving, who did as much as Dickens and Prince Albert to revivify our Christmas imagination, worried that the old traditions of Christmas — that “brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness” — were being abandoned. I suppose it is easy to cast aspersions on all this, and the revolutionary will have nothing but contempt for it. Even Dickens recognises the condescension. And at a time when children are ripping open food bags in Burnley, how can others enjoy their beef?

But like Dickens I also distrust the revolutionary instinct and the revolutionary case against kindness — though it has taken me a while in life to get there. My Left-wing political antennae has been broken, probably for good. I still accept the Marxist analysis, but not the Marxist solution. And the emerging Tory in me is rediscovering something of that spirit of Dickensian benevolence that has done so much to inform our understanding of Christmas.

There is, however, surely quite a lot of space between the (very Protestant) Scrooge story of individual repentance and Orwell’s desire for a more political answer. It’s not reformed individuals that I seek so much as a reformed society. Like Dickens, I look for a society transformed by fellow-feeling and communal solidarity not by windy lectures on structural inequality.

And the feast is still a pretty good symbol of all of that. Cooking as a form of love, of joy shared, of togetherness celebrated. These days I trust this sort of practical love more than I do politics. I know all the criticisms, many of them correct: but I will take the not-always-good-enough practical stance over the theoretical one everyday of the week.

Some feel that they have answers to the current crisis. I don’t. I have tears and prayers and the best that I can do.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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neilyboy.forsythe
neilyboy.forsythe
3 years ago

I’d like to posit the opposite theory – that many of our political problems stem from politicians being generous with other people’s money. Particularly when it comes to being generous with future generations’ money by running up debt to buy the votes of the current electorate.
That’s the money aspect, but there’s another, societal aspect – the equivalent of spoiling your children by insulating them from the realities of sucess and failure in an attempt to be “kind”. What an awful mess the “every child wins a prize” and “you can be anything you want to be” culture has caused – Silence is Violence, Speech is Violence. Everything is violence except actual, political violence
Kindness has it’s place in politics as elsewhere, but the outcomes need to be kind, NOT the policies themselves.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Exactly. The state is using my taxes to be extraordinarily kind to all manner of people, even to the extent of paying their rent. Many of these people have never worked or paid any taxes themselves. Many of them have never even lived in Britain!

And before all you lefties start, yes, I do know people who have never worked or paid taxes. They have a lot more holidays than I do.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

Are you assuming that when people go without it is because they didn’t try hard enough?

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Either that or it’s their poor quality genes ñ˜Âčマ

neilyboy.forsythe
neilyboy.forsythe
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Go without what? Food, education, healthcare or iphones?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

It happens for a lot of reasons and among those are the ones which are self-inflicted. Most people are where they because of the choices they’ve made along the way. There are exceptions – an unexpected layoff, a serious injury or illness, a family crisis – but generally speaking, we are the sum total of the choices we’ve made.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

That’s the nub of it. This belief on the Right that everyone pretty much deserves what they get. The rich deserve to be so, and the poor had it coming (I guess usually for choosing the wrong parents). I find it less heartless than moronic.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

I think it’s about equal, Kevin: the phenomenon of the evil udiot.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

When I was 7, I was almost killed in a bombing, and have been severely disabled ever since. I love your line, “There are exceptions…” How big of you to grant that. It fails to provide sufficient camouflage for your smugness.

Google ACE Study. There is a remarkable correlation between the numbers of adverse experiences in a child’s life and the general health he can be expected to have in adult life.

Here are some “exceptions” I’ve met:

1. A man who, at age 5, was told by his mother to go outside, not for the afternoon, but for good. He lived in the woods for months before someone spotted him. He went to an orphanage, was raped, ran away, became a street hustler and drug addict, eventually went to prison for armed robbery. When I met him, he was recovering from an attempted suicide: his 14 year old daughter had just been killed in an accident. A year later, he rode his bicycle into an oncoming SUV.

2. A woman who at age 5 was raped. The rapist damaged her for life. Four years later, another man kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly for days, and took a souvenir before he let her go: a middle finger, cut off at the lower joint.

3. A woman who was born when her mother tried to abort her and her twin sister by stabbing herself in the stomach repeatedly. The twin died. The mother hanged herself in prison. The little girl, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, had a good and loving father, who died when she was five. She was taken in by a fine aunt and uncle. When she was 12, the uncle dropped dead in front of her.

I have known a disabled man who has been cheated of over $100,000.00 in Social Security benefits, another whose wealthy cousin ( his father in law’s money ) made a successful war of defamation behind the man’s back to get him disinherited by an elderly, widowed, childless aunt from the opposite side of the man’s family.

There are two dozen people in my church who have become severely disabled by industrial pollution in the Shenandoah Valley. Most of them are from one extended family. They’ve lost everything material. Several of the men are brothers, and they carry a gene for a rare and unusually harsh ataxia.

In Houston in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a pioneering female sports broadcaster with the amusing name, Anita Martini. That woman was brilliant. She knew baseball so well she could have managed the Astros. She was merciless to players she thought were “dogging it,” indulging themselves in unneeded time off because of a minor injury. She was apologetic when one of her targets, a terrifying right handed pitcher, James Rodney Richard, proved not to be dogging it because of his dead arm early in the year, but an incipient severe stroke victim at 29. But gradually, the tougher than any man Anita Martini re emerged. In the late 80s, she was discovered to have a malignant brain tumor. The day after surgery, she was back on the air from her hospital bed. Within months, she had a stroke, and had to retire. Eventually, with all her money gone, she had only government assistance to live on. Not long before her death, she confessed her former ignorance and arrogance in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

You have a withered imagination, Alex. But treat yourself tenderly. Go into your bathroom, and press your lips against the mirror.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

It can be the case. I had a women lodger once.
She and her boyfriend where great fun, I always like their company.

However both hardly ever worked, and it was a bit galling when they sent me post cards from South Africa and India saying what a lovely holiday they were having.
I was, of course, working full time to pay the bills and did not have enough holiday time, or money, to spend on long holidays.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
3 years ago

Fascist beast.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

A Tory campaigner once told me that global warming was a good thing for future generations because it would set them a “challenge”
ðƾ˜‚ñ˜Âčマ

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

I agree. Govt has a long history of attempting to tackle problems and succeeding in making them worse. The trouble with spending someone else’s money is that you’re never accountable for the outcome, largely because you no skin in the game. First, it’s not your money and second, whatever initiative is involved does not impact you.

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
3 years ago

Well, I hear you, as far as that goes. Good politics should be an expression of good hearts, not a substitute for them. Even if there were enough programs in place to completely remove the need for economic charity, there would still be a need for a charitable spirit. The government might pay an old lady’s pension, but it’s not going to help her up if she stumbles and falls down on the street, you know?

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

Very well said. It’s not either/or. You need both a caring state and a caring populace. I have noticed though that the people who most often say things like “charity begins at home” are the least charitable people I’ve ever met. (I suppose they mean it literally)

Tom Adams
Tom Adams
3 years ago

‘…too many funerals attended.’ Really? I was under the impression that excess deaths are pretty much as expected compared to previous years.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Adams

Did you read the statistics for Burnley?

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

“It’s not reformed individuals that I seek so much as a reformed society.”
Like many liberal catholics in the Church of England you fail to get to the heart of the problem Giles which is the human soul,spirit,or heart – call it what you will.
The history of Communism shows that however much you try to structure society toward justice if you don’t deal with the selfishness of the human heart ( I’ll refrain from using the word sin) it just won’t work. Reformed individuals are essential if any thing remotely like a reformed society is going to emerge and last.
I believe we have become a more selfish society as we have become a more unbelieving society and turned our backs on God. The depth of inner change in us for a kinder more just society to emerge can only come about after a spiritual awakening in which we experience God’s Love in Jesus Christ and acknowledge His Truth for ourselves. Then our hearts and lives will begin to change and a kinder,less selfish person should develop. Of course society will not be perfect, but it will be much better than it is now.

Lloyd Marsden
Lloyd Marsden
3 years ago

It’s interesting, the number one thing I hear when talking about politics with friends (sadly a dwindling occurrence) is the word ‘community’. Everyone seemingly wants to live somewhere that has an active, kind local community and often it’s the one element of religion that seems to pique the interest of the non-religious.

Sadly we don’t see this reflected in national politics today (perhaps that’s how it should be, I don’t know) everything must be a global solution – not something I rail against, just an observation.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

So where does the solution come from Giles ? Granted virtue-signalling achieves nothing, if that’s all it is. You set up the problem and say the Left isn’t the solution. But what is? You settle back with your roast, good claret, menus from the bishops with wine suggested by the Times critic (Dickens would be spinning in his grave) and hope for communal solidarity. As far as I can tell the Right is getting less tolerant all the time. ‘The poor deserve to be, immigrants are leeches, unemployed are scroungers’ etc. You want to rely on those guys? I think the kids tearing open the food bags know better than that.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

Perhaps his aim is to suggest that before a problem can be addressed, it must first be identified, and there’s not much of that happening. The people who think govt is the only solution to whatever problem exists continue to believe that, despite evidence to the contrary.

As far as I can tell the Right is getting less tolerant all the time.
When a third party uses your money for ideas more likely to perpetuate a problem than fix it, you might get less tolerant, too. And that’s quite the collection of straw men you’ve built in assigning the worst of traits to people who disagree with you on policy decisions. When govt steps into things and ends up making them worse, that should bother anyone.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

“uses your money” You think I don’t pay tax ? Or that I always approve of how it’s spent? The difference is that I don’t mind paying higher taxes to build a fairer society. The Right would rather burn their money than see the ‘undeserving’ get it.

“the collection of straw men you’ve built in assigning the worst of traits”

You don’t think I can’t find a dozen of these ‘straw men’ every single day on this forum, expressing exactly those kind of sentiments ? You can plausibly try and distance yourself from the nastier elements, but you’re kidding nobody, not even yourself, if you pretend you don’t see them.

(Edit – I’ve just read your comment about society’s Cratchetts and I’ve changed my mind. Haven’t you exactly displayed what you say are the ‘worst of traits’ ?)

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

I am not sure if you include the present Conservative Government in your “Right wing is getting less tolerant” argument.
But, if you do, look at the amount of money the Government is borrowing to help people with the Covid crisis,
They are not just spending millions, but hundred of thousands of millions.
The estimated borrowing for this year is between 300,000,000,000 and 400,000,000,000 pounds and you are still not satisfied.

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

My God. You’re seriously arguing that the billions being printed to stave off the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, is somehow a wasteful government gift to the poor? I don’t know where you dream up these ideas from.

Claire Olszanska
Claire Olszanska
3 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Ryan

It will be used as another excuse to blame the poor and immigrants. I’m sick of the comments on Unherd. Never realised it was such a nasty place. It promotes open debate but really seems a place to spur on vitriol. I wouldn’t bother arguing if I were you. The minds posting on here are closed – not open for discussion at all. Unherd is a con.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Claire
Unherd needs and wants to hear all points of view including yours and Kevin’s. I certainly don’t want this platform to become a right wing echo chamber. People do write with passion and the views are generally backed up with evidence. If not they are often called out. Don’t give up.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

£2.1trillion at the last bank of England Lunch,by these useless Pro-EU govenors%%globalists!!

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Tiny Tim can get lost,
I prefer tellygoons version of ”A christmas carol” in 1963 copied by blackadder&other non-funny programmes; they made Ebenezer scrooge the hero.

David Bouvier
David Bouvier
3 years ago

Not really the point of your article but re turkey it is almost always wildly over-cooked. They require far less time in the other than people think but followed by a very long ‘rest’.

Raymond Blanc’s recipe (https://www.raymondblanc.co… ) says 1 1/2 hours for an unstuffed 5kg bird (vs. >3 hours for most recipes). We have tried it and it works brilliantly.

In general thought, use a continous temperature probe, and give it a 30 – 60 m rest after cooking – during which time the internal temperate will have continued to rise before fallng again.

For a large bird what I also do now is detach the drum sticks before cooking so you can cook them for longer than the breasts.

Do this and it is pretty good.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

“So began the annual turkey discussion. It’s a dry old bird, with little to recommend it taste-wise. Shall we go off-piste, try something different? With a sense of daring, we ask the same question, year after year, but inevitably fall back on the same old traditional menu.” The authentic traditional Christmas dish is goose. Surely a small-c conservative like the Rev Mr Fraser should prefer it to turkey?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
3 years ago

The peer and the peasant together on Christmas Day: what a warming image, one big party without a Lord of Misrule. But perhaps it might have been better if the peer had employed the peasant(s) all year round and then the peasants could have lifted themselves out of poverty: but of course, they then might not have been so biddable.

Mike Hill
Mike Hill
3 years ago

Great article Giles. Thank you.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

An unequal society allows for charity, it allows for acts of kindness and mercy, it allows for man to channel his better self. Try that in a place of shared misery and see how it works.

The Cratchets need a government with the appropriate economic policies; they should have no need of a converted Scrooge.
The Cratchets do not need either. Free markets work. Every single first world country has organized its economy in such a manner, some more free than others. When govt becomes a player, the game goes awry.