Catriona Stewart: Fetishising past hardships is no way to tackle the energy crisis

·5-min read
Catriona Stewart: Fetishising past hardships is no way to tackle the energy crisis
Catriona Stewart: Fetishising past hardships is no way to tackle the energy crisis

MEMORY is such an unreliable thing.

It’s one of the reasons nostalgia is the most untrustworthy of emotions.

Harking back to golden times of yore is almost always adding gilt to something entirely unwarranted. Any sentence beginning “In my day...” can, with some certainty, be instantly dismissed as nonsense.

“In my day”, began the message being read out on the radio the other day, “we didn’t have central heating. We wore mittens indoors and did star jumps to stay warm.”

I’m paraphrasing, but they went on to suggest anyone fretting about their fuel bills was a bit soft, a product of modern over-indulgence.

These spoilt punks, whinging about the cost of living. Just wear a bloody jumper and heat some tinned soup over a camping stove. Go the whole hog and work with your neighbours to build a single, outdoor toilet. It will involve an initial outlay but think of the money you’ll save in the long run.

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It’s all very make-do-and-mend – and so fascinating to hear people who haven’t lived through a war invoking a wartime spirit.

More fascinating still to hear people who fretted and exclaimed about the risk of Jeremy Corbyn taking Britain back to the 1970s being so positive about the Tories reinstating 1970s living conditions. No central heating? No problem. We didn’t have central heating in my day and it didn’t do me any harm.

Whether it’s the 1940s or the 1970s, this hankering for the past is part of a very particular British need to idolise competitive fortitude.

You see it in the objections to the smacking ban. “I was routinely walloped as a child,” they’ll say, “and it didn’t do me any harm.” Despite the long-term harm being apparent in the fact they feel it’s acceptable to physically abuse children. And the long-term harm of growing up in the cold without central heating is clearly clearly showing itself in the fact that they feel it’s just fine to call for the imposition of deprivation on others, rather than tackle the root of the issue.

Looking at the current lay of the land, the current political ineptitude, the ineffectual opposition, the greed of energy companies, and thinking individual responsibility is the answer speaks to a very particular bitterness towards your fellow man.

It is not that people will struggle to pay their bills because they are unable to cut their cloth correctly.

It’s that they will be unable to pay their bills at all.

It’s not going to be a wee bit of a slog, it’s going to be hardship on a grand scale and that will mean impossible choices for a great many people.

It is immoral to survey this landscape and conclude this issue is about an individual responsibility to somehow endure it. It is about the failure of political leadership. In fact, the complete lack of political leadership.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss can’t decide between them which direction is the moral route. High taxes are immoral, according to Truss, but raising debt is immoral, Sunak says.

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Meanwhile, the electorate, in desperation for someone to take charge, have turned to TV money expert Martin Lewis, who appears to be more morally invested in the fate of households than anyone voted in to office.

The Don’t Pay campaign – which urges householders to do exactly that regarding their energy bills – is resorting to a Robin Hood morality. Stealing from the rich, in this case, isn’t going to heat the poor.

There’s another strand to the narrative, which is people saying they plan to stick it to the man by decreasing what they use. Fine, great.

If you can stand to switch off your heating in winter, then that’s a matter between you and your chilblains. Anyone who thinks they can avoid paying over the odds to their energy company has another think coming. Increases in standing charges mean you’re still paying more, whether you use any power or not.

For some, the choice will not be between heating and eating but between eating and paying other bills. If not paying is a point of principle, then you are relatively privileged. Others will have no option and the bills they’re forced to skip will include council tax, which will have an impact on council services.

Non-payment will do long-term harm to people who find their credit scores damaged or even end up in court.

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A winter without heating comes with the added bonus of damp developing and burst pipes. Impossible to fix those when you haven’t any money.

The idea – and it’s mad that this needs to be said – is to not for society not to regress.

Fond memories of frosted glass and hot bricks wrapped in a towel are all very well, but memories belong in the past. Discomfort is, and has always been, an impetus for progress.

It’s awful that children had to shiver in the 60s; it should be unimaginable that children should shiver in 2022.

These people who see a beauty in hardship, a romance, talk about their nostalgia for their childhoods. Childhoods.

How clear, really, are our childhood memories? I have plenty memories of childhood excitement in situations that must have been stressful and frightening for the adults involved.

It shows a lack of empathy, not just for their peers now, but for their parents.

Those reminiscing about childhoods without the luxury of central heating seem not to wonder how hard it was for their mothers to run a household lacking in conveniences and comfort.

What are these people who see candles and thick socks as a solution to the cost-of-living crisis longing for?

Hardship, harm, a spiral backwards. Their resentment creates enough energy to overwhelm the national grid.

Nostalgia is a fake solution, a way of avoiding the real problems of the present. Those problems are real and hard to solve, but clinging to falsehoods about the past prevents us from even making a start.