The already infamous footage of Boris Johnson’s assistants filmed in Downing Street laughing at how to handle the news of an illicit Christmas party at No 10 is not really a Westminster story. It’s much, much bigger than that. Yes, it will be narrated by lobby reporters and illustrated with excerpts from Prime Minister’s Questions, but this episode overshadows the usual Peppa Pig chatter and stories. This one goes to the heart of how this country is run because it is all about fairness. About them and us. About who can’t see their mom on her deathbed on a Covid ward and enjoying an evening of cheese and wine, fun games, and a secret Santa Claus. The society that pokes fun at its sense of fair play is also the most unequal country in Western Europe, and the depth of this story lies in its revelation of the inequality of our lives.
It’s not a word you hear a lot from Westminster these days, inequality. For Keir Starmer’s team, it may be too reminiscent of the Corbyn years, while Johnson prefers to trumpet about ‘leveling up’. Yet euphemisms and silences cannot negate its poisonous influence, and the pandemic that began with the government assuring us “we are all in there” was defined by inequality. Long journeys by car to Barnard Castle, while others are only allowed an hour’s walk away. Well-to-do managers on Zoom ordering the delivery of their groceries, even though caregivers are not paid anything when they are seriously ill. Some of them are stories of life and death, others of wealth or ruin, and each shows how inequality fits into this country and our daily lives.
The day before this video from the briefing room was broadcast, I visited the most unequal city in the country. Not the capital, nor Manchester or Aberdeen but, according to research by the Center for Cities, Cambridge think tank, a small town with a population half the size of a single London borough. Long before this coronavirus arrived, locals experienced a quite different kind of social distancing – one where your zip code and a few miles made the difference between living to age 87 or older, or dying at 78. And where, on Christmas 2019, a homeless woman gave birth to twins prematurely as she slept outside Cambridge’s richest middle school, Trinity.
Since the Brexit vote, journalists have spent a lot of time scouring the failures of the UK – towns and villages that have struggled to recover since their coal mines or factories closed. But to visit Cambridge is to see something else: how limited and partial Britain’s post-industrial successes are. There’s a lot of money flowing here, from the old colleges to the new WeWork complex just outside the station and to the Amazons and Apples settling in the science parks that spring up all around the perimeter of the city.
It’s what leads government ministers to put on their hi-vis jackets, talk about dynamic startups and imagine an arc that curls westward and joins it at Milton Keynes and Oxford. Johnson inherited this plan from David Cameron, and his upgrade service went beyond any âred wallâ white paper. But if Cambridge is the future of the UK, as Westminster wants it to be, then it is the one in which inequalities run even deeper in society. The Center for Cities recalls that the less well-off 20% of the local population receive only 2% of the city’s income.
Drive 10 minutes from the center of Cambridge, past the small terraced Victorian houses that now sell for London prices, and you may reach the most disadvantaged part of this city of wealth: Abbey. The catering center operates Monday lunchtime, inside an old preschool building that still has the pastel-colored classroom walls. A queue begins to form an hour in advance and the morning rush is formidable.
Granville Grahame, a skinny 55-year-old who worked through oranges, bananas and bread, ran a barbershop right next to the Grafton Mall until a messy divorce derailed him. He lost his business, then his home, and had spent the months leading up to confinement lying in a parking lot right next to his old shop. “Without this place I wouldn’t have anything to eat,” he said, swaddled in an old parka. âI would be lucky to have one meal a day. “
Next was Kevin, a worker whose body was rotting. Both his shoulders had to be operated on and he was leaning on a cane. Her daughter, Natalie, was helping her with her luggage while also getting things for herself. She works as a nursery nurse until Christmas. Then she was fired and so far no one has called her for an interview. Nicky Shepard, head of the Abbey People social enterprise which runs the hub, watched her, who said quietly that she noticed how many women coming for food were working in nurseries or as teaching assistants.
At the desks next to her were a few staff from the local Citizens Advice and Cambridge Water office, setting up a constant stream of people worried about their heating bills or benefits. In a small room, you had an ad hoc welfare state, providing food and support where the public and private sectors had withdrawn. The county and city council saw their core central government funding wiped out. Outside, staff pointed out, the last local post office had closed, most pubs were gone, and if you wanted to sit down and have a coffee, your best bet was the giant McDonald’s across the roundabout. .
It was only days after Rishi Sunak disclosed his plans to cut inheritance and income taxes, but here they were facing the fallout from another of his cuts: the October cut that cut by Â£ 20 per week universal credit. Over the next month, the number of hub-dependent households jumped by more than 25%, while the number of fuel and supermarket vouchers distributed tripled.
There is also a new kind of anxiety, noted Rachel Karniely, director of the catering center. âMore visitors are asking for extra supportâ¦ or even just someone to talk to. The people she supports now call her “crying on the phone, expressing suicidal thoughts, because they’re afraid of becoming homeless because they can’t pay the bills.” Just down the road was the city center, with its chic boutiques and cultural festivals, but no one I spoke to at the hub went there. âI have no business with them, and they have no business with me,â Natalie said. âI could take the kids to Christmas. “
The age-old divide was once said to be between city and dress, but over the past couple of years it has been covered by a new form of inequality. A new globalized Cambridge has been created, open to multinational companies who use their uprooting to reduce their tax bills, and to investors from China and the Gulf states successfully lured by university executives. This society has as much to do with Cambridge, Mass. As it does with the Fens.
Businesses, university directors and ministers have traded Cambridge’s fame for a form of money and success enjoyed only by the privileged few, even as it has driven up house prices, blocked roads and put additional pressure on Addenbrooke’s schools and hospital. Even academics at the university, who joined the national strike action last week, haven’t seen many of its rewards.
One, a college professor called Edwin, told me how he traded his Cambridge apartment during the pandemic for a much cheaper place on loan from a friend. But that meant that the three or four nights a week he worked at college, he spent the night in a sleeping bag in his office. No one else in his faculty knew his secret. Yet each week he devoted 60 hours to college affairs, mentoring teenagers who had spent thousands of pounds on his teaching.
And it is considered a success, unlike all the economic debris in the UK. I left Cambridge with a sense of unease I couldn’t quite pinpoint until I saw the spokesperson for the then Prime Minister (now a victim) laughing at a “business meeting”, and then it hit me: these are the same socio-economic wounds and sadness that I heard before the Brexit vote under another government that makes fun of those who suffer. And this, before the peaks of inflation. I wouldn’t bet against politics becoming even more explosive.
I still hope they had a good evening.