Baby it’s cold inside


It’s been cold in our house for a few days now. More than a week in fact. Our boiler broke down the weekend before last. We live in a cob house which is bad news when you’re trying to put up shelves, but pretty good if your heating decides to take the night off. It took a day or so before we realised anything had was wrong, and five full days for the house to lose its heat completely. This from the same walls which create a cool indoor oasis during the summer heat. Our house is over 300 years old, and those mud slingers sure knew what they were doing back then.

But once it got cold, it stayed cold. Left with just one big log burner, an electric shower and a kettle, the house became a different place to live in. Soon the only places we were spending time were in the front room feeding the fire, or in bed, more or less fully clothed. Those of you with a more fruity imagination might suggest at this point that a little vigorous physical exercise might have been just the ticket, but one of the most unexpected and gloomy realisations was how quickly we forgot about doing anything other than trying to stay warm. Stuff started to pile up in the other rooms which were too cold to spend time in. Drifts of clothes lay unsorted, almost unseen. The kitchen floor gained a crunchy coating of grit and sand, too bleak and chilly to sweep. The tradition of spring cleaning now began to make perfect sense. In a cold house, nothing gets done that isn’t vital to survival. Sweeping the floor can wait until the sun starts to creep back in through the windows.

My mum told me that when she was a girl they would wake up on Winter mornings and run downstairs to get to the coal fire, leaving glasses of frozen water beside their beds. That seems hard to believe, but for our family it’s one generation away.

It sounds almost laughable, and i’m certainly being over dramatic, but for us, in small ways, even physical well-being was relegated to non-essential status. Medications lay untouched for days. Dry skin began to crack and bleed. I began to get a sense of how the cold, or at least the prolonged inability to get warm, can kill. Maybe not directly, but slowly, by shutting down our ability to cope, to care, even just for ourselves.

For millions of people in the UK, this cold is a reality right now, a reality which poses a direct threat.  One in six families live in fuel poverty, having to spend more than 10% of their household income on heating to stay warm. These latest figures, note, are from 2008, since when fuel prices have risen, a recession has bitten, and unemployment has begun to rise. How many families are out there now, feeling just a little colder than is comfortable? Meanwhile, the Prime Minister had to intervene to stop the annual Cold Weather Payment to pensioners and poorer families being cut from £25 a week to just £8.50 during the recent spending review. Good for him, but it’s sad to reflect that whilst this decision will help some of the most vulnerable in our society to stay a little warmer this year, it was likely made for political reasons.

Our boiler has been replaced now, and the cost to us will be a Summer holiday this year and a little belt-tightening. Our little stay-at-home winter break is over, but for lots of other people on our street and in our village, the cold is here to stay.


Browne is yellow and blue all over


The coalition government have voted to remove the cap on University tuition fees. As I write, students and others are protesting in Westminster, the streets are being torn apart and police are hitting people with batons.

Let’s be clear about why this is happening. The government decided to make huge cuts in public spending to reduce the budget deficit, and furthermore to make these cuts within the lifetime of the parliament. From that decision extends an inexorable logic. What would you cut? Defence? Police? Health provision? Or Universities which, in the popular imagination, churn out graduates who walk into well paid jobs?

The Comprehensive Spending Review included a 79% cut in the teaching grant to universities. Again, the logic is unavoidable: universities cannot teach if to do so costs them losses of thousands of pounds per student per year. Either funding must be found from elsewhere, or dozens of the more than 130 universities in the country must close.

If I had my way – I don’t and I never will – we’d be saying goodbye to Trident, taxing the corporations, bankers and anyone else earning over 10 times the minimum wage until their pips squeak, and re-establishing fully-funded education for all. The benefits are unarguable, for graduates and for the country. Why not recoup the cost of higher education from those who have benefitted so fully from free degrees (not to say low taxes, booming property, free universal healthcare). In short, raise taxes for every generation from the post-war baby-boomers up to and including my own. We had it all given to us on a plate, why not make us give some of it back?

But the cuts have been made. Fees are the only game in town. The logic, crushing and unavoidable, is clear. The effects will be felt over a generation. Browne has a strong progressive safety net. Poor students will not repay fees, reasonably well-off graduates will. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to imagine that the poorest in society – those who do relatively better through attending university  than the middle-class entitled, by the way – will not turn away from education in their thousands. Read Sickmouthy’s recent post to understand how universities have become engines for social mobility over the last decades.

The rest is politics, and what’s left is the shredded corpse of the Liberal Democrats. Are they cheats, or liars? Did they make pledges they had no intention of keeping? Or did they fail to stand up to their Conservative overlords and choose to break their promises and betray their beliefs instead? Perhaps this is coalition politics. Perhaps we would have done the same thing, with heavy hearts and twitching sphincters.

What’s clear is that come the next election their pledges will be worthless and their promises will fall on deaf ears. All that remains for them is to make the most of their time in front of the cameras, squirming as they try to justify policies they used to denounce. They won’t be around for much longer and in the meantime the Conservatives have a whole load more shit for them to carry.