The nuts were on the platform, but where were the crisps? Laid out with less legroom than a Romanian airline, last night's Orwell Prize drinks 'n' nibbles launch at London's Frontline Club was a hot and sweaty affair with the faintest methane miasma of drains. The worst flatulence, however, was to come as we gained an insight into the mindset running the economy into the ground.
Four members of the intelligentsia did little to challenge the right-wing narrative that the ConDem coalition cuts are necessary, that we all have to share in the misery, and that there's not a lot we can do. David "Mr Polly Toynbee" Walker got off to a promising start, speaking of the invisibility of the poor and questioning the responsibility of the media in "enhancing the opacity of our fellow citizens". He listed achievements and failures of the Labour government to tackle poverty, concluding that the glass was half empty and half full. "Many of Osborne's destructions announced yesterday had been presaged by successive Labour secretaries of State for Social Security and two Labour Chancellors," who'd already targeted groups of poor people on benefits. Thirteen years of Labour government had left a gap of fifteen years in terms of health and longevity between the best and worst off. But he never nailed the argument that we have been reading the current economic situation through a series of distorting mirrors wielded by the Tories.
Lisa Harker (former co-director of the IPPR) wrung her hands but said little of substance. [EDIT: apols to Lisa but I mixed her up with Meg Russell whose performance at the 2010 Orwell Prize shortlist event earlier this year I was trying to forget when, horror-struck by nasty members of the public who had produced a Wanted poster lampooning the Westminster benefit cheats, she'd had to be calmed down by Helena Kennedy.]
Chris Giles of the Financial Times gave us facts and figures proving that the Tories were dissembling with their figures, but the chief source of entertainment for the mob – er, I mean the us – was the twitchy New Zealand Chief Economist for Reform and former adviser to the New Zealand government, Dr Patrick Nolan.
A classic bean-counting wonk too parsimonious even to move his mouth when he spoke, giving the unfortunate impression of a cat who'd just walked into the room backwards, his case seemed to rest on the assertion that there was too big an ageing population, as if this was a nuisance rather than something to be celebrated in an advanced society. He cited Canada as a success story, where a vicious right-wing government had laid into the poor with gusto in order to stabilise the economy. Nolan said you should never run any deficit. He also slagged off Joseph Stiglitz who, as gamekeeper-turned-poacher and a prominent critic of globalisation, is a bit of a hero to many of us seeking an equitable society.
Nolan really won us over with his claim that you don't measure the health service by the number of nurses, or the education system by the number of buildings. It's quality of spending, not quantity, ya dig. He should tell the rich to remember that next time they count their moolah. He was all about why we had to pick up the bill as "communities" and individuals had to take more responsibility because governments had less money.
As my lovely companion murmered, where's this money going to? The debt is all domestic. Then he said something about "it's the bond markets" and I felt my nictitating membrane flutter as it always does when sleep beckons.
The best moment came when my mates got to work from the floor. Sigh! My heroes.
First Louise (Harpy Marx) asked why no-one had mentioned the cost of Trident, "stupid, futile wars", the £1.3 trillion bail-out for the bankers, or the £70 billion lost in tax evasion every year. "It's always the poor who pay for this, this is an ideological attack on the poor." You can listen to her contribution here.
Then Laurie Penny (New Statesman and Penny Red) observed that the panel was allowing the ideology of the right to set the terms of the event. "The financial failings of the rich are being blamed on the moral failings of the poor."
Sadly, the Orwell Prize You Tube Channel has omitted video No 9 which has Nolan's response. Luckily, I made notes and was paying attention. [EDIT: Saturday 23rd Oct, vid 9 — the Nolan Tape —is now up.]
Nolan launched his riposte with a huffy "How predictable you mention banks and tax. I won't ask if you'd actually bothered to look at the statistics ...". He could have responded to Louise's comments by offering evidence in a coruscating counter-argument but instead eyeballed Louise and repeatedly demanded she "clarify which taxes were most prone to avoidance and who are the people who are most cheating the system." (Thanks Carl Raincoat at Though Cowards Flinch for finding the Spectator article written by the Great Man in his neurosis to have the last word.)
I did respond to his haranguing (you can hear my deep Joan Greenwood tones in video 9), and I should add that by this point the audience was most definitely sniggering at him and not with him. "It's easy to blame the bankers," he blustered, the only point where we all agreed. The tetchy sheep doctor should have got his pearl-grey tank-top off our lawn and allowed some proper debate. "Ahem, the Tolpuddle Martyrs," our Jean had to remind him when he Frank Fielded on the notion of protest and we yelled, "Suffragettes!". And totally correct she was, too.
After this staggering lack of empathy for the weakest in society, I want tumbrils rolling in the streets. I may even take up knitting. Or at least do my make-up during the speeches as Laurie "Red" Penny did last night to stave off boredom and fury.
If they want class warfare, may I suggest we give them class warfare?
Tied up in a neat bow with a red ribbon.
The Orwell Prize You Tube Channel here
How the richest 1,000 could clear the deficit here