One of the more memorable, if enigmatic, lines from W.B. Yeats’ very late poem ‘The Circus Animals Desertion’ keeps going round in my mind: ‘And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread….’ Yeats was alluding to the legend of Cuchulain, but the symbolism of the Fool – in the Elizabethan sense of the court jester – and the Blind Man seem peculiarly apposite. In the present context the Fool needs no introduction, although Shakespeare’s Fools were often able to use their foolery as a front behind which a wisdom was to be found that is notably absent from the clown who is supposed to be leading our country at present. The Blind Man is the one who, while seemingly able bodied, walks straight towards, and falls into, a gaping hole that almost everybody else can see. Our Blind Man, Rishi Sunak, however eminently smooth, affable and seemingly reasonable, is, like our Fool, not gifted with foresight. He is not a Tiresias figure – the blind but far-sighted seer of myth and legend – and seems incapable of seeing the pitfall in front of him. While Sunak may be doing his best to shore up the sides of the Covid pit which the incompetence of his colleagues is digging ever deeper, the Brexit pit is one he is said to have been striding towards all his adult life, and he appears blindly oblivious to the danger. So much so that the word wasn’t heard once as he outlined his plans in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review. The Brexit pit has been predicted by both the Governor of the Bank of England and the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to be destined to be at least twice as deep as the Covid pit.
So whose was the bread the Fool and the Blind Man have “stolen”? In the first instance, that of the 4.2 million children under 16 in UK who were already living below the poverty line in 2019 and whose situation will inevitably have become significantly worse during the pandemic. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently warned the government that the pandemic was having a ‘devastating’ impact on the well-being of children. It took a 23 year-old football player to shame the Fool and the Blind Man into reversing their policy of discontinuing the provision of free school meals during the holidays. And it isn’t because the feckless working class unemployed aren’t prepared to go out and work to provide for their children, as the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches would no doubt maintain: seventy percent of children in poverty, according to May Bulman in Tuesday’s Independent, have at least one parent who is in work. In a context in which it was disclosed yesterday that £10 billion was wasted on PPE in the early months of the pandemic because government incompetence had ensured that the stock of PPE when the pandemic struck was grossly inadequate, imposing a freeze on most public sector salaries, which will amount to a real term decrease as Brexit sends prices soaring, seems pretty shameless. It certainly won’t help to put the bread back on the table. And all the while the Blind Man assures us that there won’t be a return to austerity.
Beyond the UK, the bread is being stolen from the poorest of the poor elsewhere in the world, as the Fool and the Blind Man set about changing the law to save £4 billion by cutting the legislated 0.7% of GDP that our laws dictate should go to foreign aid every year down to 0.5%. The quantum of foreign aid that will be available after the 28% cut will, of course, also be significantly reduced by the fall in GDP resulting from the pandemic, and the much longer-term reduction in GDP resulting from a no-deal Brexit, which, the Blind Man asserted again on the Today programme this morning, wouldn’t bother him. This cut is being made in the same breath as four times as much, £16bn extra, is gifted to the Ministry of Defence to appease the Hooray Henrys on the Tory backbenches and pander to the Fool’s delusion that the UK is still the global superpower it was in the 19th century. Tory backwoodsmen will be arguing that much of our foreign aid is wasted as a result of corruption in the countries to which it is granted, in a context in which it has been made all too clear that the £4 billion saving in financial aid is dwarfed by the tens of billions that have been squandered through the pandemic via the corrupt Tory ‘Chumocracy’ that has seen huge contracts going to line the pockets of wholly unqualified friends and relations of Tory Ministers, MPs and special advisers. “Chumocracy” is a grotesquely inelegant word, but then what it describes isn’t very pretty either. British foreign aid buys us wholly disproportionate goodwill and influence around the world, vastly more (pace the Blind Man’s feeble plaint on the Today programme) than our defence force, and once converted into local currencies at very advantageous exchange rates brings enormous benefits. Cutting the aid budget is short-sighted and mean spirited, but then, of course, a Fool is a fool and a Blind Man is, by definition, the apogee of short-sightedness.