On 27 January, Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South raised the issue of food banks with the Work and Pensions Secretary, Therese Coffey. Ms Sultana pointed out that her constituency had one of the largest food banks in the country and said it was a national scandal that many people – including nurses – were being forced to use food banks at a time when some of the wealthiest in society continue to enjoy rising living standards. “Does the Minister accept that it is a gross injustice that nurses are forced to use food banks while fat-cat bosses receive obscene pay-outs?” she asked.

Dr Coffey replied,

“I visited a similar food bank in my own constituency that has been working together with food redistribution schemes. Marrying the two is a perfect way to try to address the challenges that people face at difficult times in their lives.”

One of them sees the need for food banks as a national scandal, while the other sees them as a perfect solution. What is behind these two radically different positions?

Both positions are quite logical, but they follow from very different premises about the nature of morality:

  • like many people, the Zarah Sultana believes that everyone has a right to a secure and dignified life;
  • there is an alternative position – the market fundamentalist’s position – which believes that people get what they deserve: and that forcing high-value people to subsidise low-value people is immoral;
  • those that hold the second position do indeed believe that food banks are a perfect solution.

There is a Commonly Accepted Definition of Morality

The Oxford Dictionaries (now called Oxford Languages) define morality as follows:

This is the dictionary definition. And it also reflects what many people feel: that morality is about principles and values, that it is about distinguishing right and wrong, good and bad.

When, in 1942, Sir William Beveridge published his famous report promising to rid the country of five great evils or ‘giants’ as he called them: Want [poverty], Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness [unemployment], most people felt that that was the moral thing to do and the right way to make Britain a better country after the war than it been before. His report was so popular with the public that it became a bestseller. And it was his report which provided the intellectual underpinnings for the Welfare State and the NHS.

The report was translated into policy and into reality by the post-war government of Clement Attlee. And, if we judge by the enduring popularity of the NHS, this form of morality is still shared by the majority of people.

There is an Alternative Morality – Market Fundamentalism

But there is another form of morality which is very popular in certain circles: market fundamentalism. Most simply, this form of morality stems from a belief that markets are always right, and if you disagree with a market outcome, it is you that are in the wrong.

Sometimes, you hear people say things like, “I think you will find that what people are paid tends to reflect the value that they bring to society.” According to this line of thought, if some nurses are so poorly paid that they need to use food banks, the problem is that they are simply not bringing enough value to society. And if the top executives of the tobacco company Philip Morris are all paid millions of dollars each year, that is because they are bringing tremendous value to society by developing, producing, marketing and selling (addictive and carcinogenic) cigarettes.

In the UK, in 2019, the highest-paid CEO was Denise Coates of Bet365 whose take-home pay amounted to £323 million. In addition, she collected around £46 million in dividends from her 50% share in the company. At a time when problem gambling is growing, it is hard to believe that she brings more value to society than 13,000 nurses – but strictly speaking, if you’re a market fundamentalist, you do have to believe this.

Strangely enough, many of the people that do manage to believe this line of thought are people who have done particularly well out of the current system. And, unfortunately enough, several of them are in the cabinet.

And if you do believe this, then, although it is unfortunate that so many people are now being forced to rely on food banks, the only fair remedy is for them to take responsibility for their own lives and start adding a bit more value to society. The worst thing a government could do would be to start penalising those who do bring value to society and rewarding those who do not – before you know it, we would have created a nation of unproductive spongers. That is why, among market fundamentalists, the Welfare State has always had such a bad name.

Food Banks Are a Perfect Solution For Market Fundamentalists

So, in effect, the world has two kinds of people in it:

  1. those who think that everyone deserves freedom from Beveridge’s five giants, whether or not they are in a position to free themselves; and
  2. those who do not.

For those in the second category, food banks are a perfect solution: no one is compelled to give to them, so they do not penalise the productive members of society; but of course, if they wish to, those in the first category are free to donate as much as they like.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg eloquently put it,

“It [the State] provides a basic level of welfare … but on some occasions that will not work and to have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good compassionate country we are.”

For those in the first category, especially if they believe that in our society wealth brings power, food banks are a very poor solution. They are not good for recipients – what they provide is not always adequate, and is often accompanied by feelings of shame. And they are effectively a tax on compassion – and a reward for lack of compassion – among the better off. Most fundamentally, they are a solution which transfers ever greater power to those with least compassion. Or as most people see it, to those with least morality.

Fortunately, most people still understand the dictionary definition of morality. And it will take only five fairly simple steps, to restore morality to politics.

If this matters to you, please do sign up and join the 99% Organisation.