Magazine article The Spectator

Plundering the Poor and Waging War on the Beggars

Magazine article The Spectator

Plundering the Poor and Waging War on the Beggars

Article excerpt

I have always hated the Lottery. I hate all forms of gambling, but this one is peculiarly objectionable. It is, in effect, a device to get the poor to pay for the pleasures of the rich. At a comer shop I use in Westbourne Grove, I see every week very poor people, many of them blacks, handing over money they cannot afford to keep alight the minute flame of hope that flickers in their lives - the hope that, one day, their overwhelming problems of want will be solved suddenly by an incandescent flash of gold. The chances of this happening are infinitesimally small. Instead, their miserable little contributions, along with those of countless other poor people, are divided between a lucky entrepreneur appointed by a commission composed mainly of smug New Labour cronies, and a range of cultural causes favoured by the well-to-do, from opera to excremental art. The sums of money involved are colossal - it is amazing what a tax on the poor will raise - and it is not surprising that people like Richard Branson want to get in on the act, or that the lottery principle is piously endorsed by the entire arts establishment down to its last fag and faggot. Nor does it surprise me that this morally disreputable enterprise is now engulfed in scandal. I hope and pray that it collapses under the weight of its sins. But it won't, of course. Such a mean and ingenious scheme to trick the pool is the work of a hard-hearted genius, and it has the additional advantage that it was devised by the Tories and enthusiastically endorsed by Labour. The middle and upper classes never buy a lottery ticket, derive all the benefits and, at the same time, have the humbugging satisfaction of blaming the poor for their improvidence.

Now New Labour is compounding its hypocrisy by telling us not to give money to beggars. This is the message of a woman called Louise Casey, known as 'Tsar of the Homeless' (she runs a quango called the Rough Sleepers' Unit), who is to spend a large sum of public money to advertise the anti-beggar campaign. No doubt she is well meaning. Many beggars are drug addicts. That is obvious even to an inexpert eye like mine. Many others who solicit money are part of organised gangs of immigrants. That is obvious, too. The police ought to be given a clear directive to rid the streets of these professionals: they have possessed ample powers to do so since the time of the Elizabethans, who called these parasites 'sturdy beggars'. New York has tackled the problem with great success, and there is no reason at all why London and other big English cities should not follow the American example.

But I strongly object to a government official telling us to suppress a natural human impulse. It is one of the glories of mankind that individual giving to the poor has been habitual from the very earliest times of which we have records. We find beggars in ancient Sumer, in the Babylonian Empires, in the Egypt of pre-dynastic times, in the Greece of the Mycenaean age. Why were they poor? We do not know. The notion that poverty can be completely abolished by human arrangements is an ancient fantasy, still vigorous in our age but rejected by the wise. Jesus of Nazareth said, 'Ye have the poor always with you.' What he meant, I think, is that a certain percentage of the human race will always be pretty hopeless at getting on in the world. It does not mean that they are bad, or lazy, or even stupid, or have vicious habits. It means that, in the true sense of the word, they are unworldly. …

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