Grief is the price we pay for love, the late Queen wisely said; but for many of her subjects, their actual income is the price to pay for grief. Aspects of normal life have been suspended, but no one has yet found a way to cancel or pause the cost of living crisis, a peril without recent precedent. What happens when an abrupt national event collides with an economy defined by insecurity and declining wages: well, more misery and hardship? But amid the mourning for the Queen, few people want to talk about that.
“Now is not the time,” decree the self-appointed grief police. Perhaps someone should inform one casualty, let’s call her Helena, that now is not the time to complain about her partner being ignominiously tossed from a Royal residence on to the scrapheap. “My partner was let go from work at Windsor Castle last Friday with no notice just because of mourning,” she tells me. As a contracted out construction worker, he was given no advance warning, simply ordered to make the site secure and then leave. Helena understands that many wish to mourn: “But for a young family this has put us in dire straits, and I feel resentment as this is nothing to do with us: I have respect for the death of an old lady but that’s about it, we still need to eat.”
Enforced mourning and a precarious workforce make poor bedfellows. Take Bunty, who works on the minimum wage for a Devon baking company. She has been given a choice: either she loses a day’s pay, or she takes it out of her annual leave allowance. She can manage financially, “but it’s the principle that’s at stake, in my opinion,” and she’s right. This mourning period illuminates the deep cracks in our labour market, and the damage that’s been done to the bedrock by decades of government policy.
Consider some of those affected: the freelance paramedic who was already anxious about forking out for school uniform; the community artist who works with vulnerable people in poorer communities who has lost £350 from cancellations; Graham, a Liverpool taxi driver, who had planned for the first Liverpool home game of the season and the tens of thousands of foreign fans it would attract, “I’ve worked out that it’s cost me over £200,” he tells me. “All I hear is ‘pay some respect’: well, I’ve certainly paid, but I won’t be able to pay my rent.”
While the millions-strong army of self-employed people in Britain are venerated as the can-do, entrepreneurial backbone of the free market economy, their lives are often defined by hardship and insecurity. Indeed, as the pandemic subsided, more than a quarter reported difficulties paying for basic expenses in the previous month. With little buffer, a sudden loss of income can be difficult to absorb. Caitlin, a self-employed fitness instructor who will “be losing a decent chunk of income,” tells me: “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I am devastated.” Every penny matters. “I’m already just about keeping myself and my business afloat, and I had counted on that money coming in to pay towards bills. I have no idea where I’m going to find the extra cash.”
Those who championed this “flexible labour market” claimed it was all about freedom and liberating the inner potential of each individual. In reality it is about workers stripped of basic security and brutally exposed to the consequences of events far beyond their control. Be it a financial crash, a pandemic, or a royal death which demands a national shutdown as requisite proof of grief, it is always workers who are expected to empty their pockets.
This buildup of resentment is hardly conducive to stability. It is notable that there were four prime ministers in the last six years of the Queen’s life, with no change in government. All have been confronted by and have failed to tackle the issue of living standards. The victims of stagnation in the old industrial heartlands voted for Brexit and felled David Cameron, then they deprived Theresa May of her majority and fatally wounded her premiership. Then there was public fury at Boris Johnson, for his illicit partying, but also for surging prices, a problem for which he had no solution. Resentment continues to build, but then it will when sacrifice is always expected from those who have least to spare.
In days to come, the flags will wave, the mourners will march, the brass bands will play – and the struggling will suffer. It’s not indecent to say it: it’s indecent to be silent.