It is no accident that we remember Marie Antoinette for supposedly saying “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (let them eat cake).” Whether she actually said it is irrelevant. The fact is that the French Revolution evolved out of food shortages that forced the desperate poor to take to the streets in revolt. The other famous revolution, the one that began in St Petersburg in February 1917 was also immediately preceded by food shortages and bread riots. In more recent times, the spate of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that we now refer to as “the Arab Spring” were also preceded by a big spike in food prices that drove millions of people into hunger.
Why am I telling you this? Simply because something very similar is coming to a town or city near you in the very near future.
Despite successive government ministers claiming that the reason more than a million emergency food parcels were distributed by just one foodbank operator last year is “complicated,” the truth is that it is because hundreds of thousands of British families – including the working poor – cannot afford to feed themselves. If this wasn’t bad enough, things are about to get a lot worse.
Foodbanks are being hit by two forces that impact on either side of their social business model. On the one side is the government’s package of austerity cuts, which continue to drive millions of UK households into poverty. This is particularly problematic in those areas where the government’s ill-conceived Universal Credit system has been imposed. According to the Trussell Trust:
“Foodbanks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout to single people, couples and families, have seen a 16.85% average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average of 6.64%.”
In recent weeks, growing demand for emergency food aid has resulted in foodbanks across Britain running out of food for the first time. This is only the start. The government pledge to maintain George Osborne’s freeze on benefits guarantees that an increasing number of British households will be turning to foodbanks between now and 2022.
This, however, is only one side of the problem. More worrying in the longer term is the sharp rise in UK food inflation. For the moment, competition between supermarkets has held prices down lower than would otherwise have been the case. However, the fall in the Pound following last year’s Brexit vote (which was largely cushioned at the time by futures contracts) is now feeding through in the shape of increased prices for imported food – something that will spiral out of control if the UK cannot negotiate a favourable exit deal with the EU.
Food inflation is problematic for foodbanks in two ways. Most obviously, it means that the cost of a weekly shop is rising at a time when all but the top 10 percent of earners are experiencing stagnating or falling wages. The inevitable consequence is that an even greater number of households at the bottom of the income ladder are going to be forced to seek aid from foodbanks. Less obviously, foodbanks rely on food donated by the public at various collection points, particularly those within supermarkets. With food inflation increasing, the wider public’s ability not only to maintain current levels of donations, but to increase them to meet increasing demand is going to be curtailed. Indeed, it is very likely that we will see foodbanks either having to close temporarily for lack of supplies or – even more perniciously – being obliged to tighten their eligibility criteria in order to rebalance supply and demand.
This will leave just one place where people can more or less guarantee a meal – the prison system! Faced with the absolute poverty of not having food in their bellies, thousands of people are going to regard prison not as the deterrent it is supposed to be, but as a quasi-hotel where they can still get a square meal and a warm bed. In such circumstances, bread riots are to be expected. After all, participants will have nothing left to lose anyway.
It is possible that the government will come to its senses and end austerity before it is too late. But perhaps those who live their lives in the Westminster Bubble are now so insulated from the reality of life in the rest of Britain that they will be unmoved. If so, they may soon have another reason for regretting the cuts they have made to the British police force.