It seems appropriate that the "Occupy London" protest currently going on should base itself on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Devotees of Disney films will of course have watched the classic "Mary Poppins". Featured in that film is an old lady who sells bags of bird food on the steps of St. Paul's. Mary Poppins, nanny to the Banks children whose father works at a dusty old bank close to those steps, sings of the plight of the birds and their desperate need for food. At tuppence a bag, the food is just the right price for a rich but neglected child to buy with his pocket money.
I've long thought that it's not the birds that are hungry, but the old lady who is selling bird food in order to earn enough money to live. Juxtaposed in the film are ostentatious wealth, represented by the bank, and grinding poverty, represented by the bird lady. Michael Banks, the younger child, must choose what to do with his pocket money. Should he put it in the bank, or should he buy bird food?
In fact Michael's decision is taken out of his hands. The bank seizes his money against his will. When he protests, other customers of the bank misunderstand, and all start to remove their money, causing a run on the bank. But in the film there is no government to step in and rescue the bank. It is forced to close its doors and suspend business.
It seems to me that the dilemma that our government has faced, and still faces, is the same as that faced by Michael Banks. Do we concentrate our resources on supporting banks and financial markets? Or do we allow them to fail, and instead concentrate on supporting the poor and the needy?
So far government has opted to support banks while cutting support to the poor and needy. It has done so, in my opinion, because of a misguided belief that failing to provide money to banks would endanger the economy, and a second equally misguided belief that supporting the vulnerable costs money that the public purse cannot afford. Banks may not have physically seized government money - although some would argue that they have - but by talking up the dangers of bank failure and convincing politicians of their overriding need for support at all costs, they have ensured that they have first call on public money. The people of the UK get what is left over after the demands of banks and financial markets have been met. And even that is cut to the bone because financial markets actually don't like governments spending money to support the poor and needy. Never mind that the needs of people aren't met. Plentiful risk-free securities supported by AAA credit ratings are all that matters, it seems.
In the film, the outcome of the bank's attempt to seize Michael's money is literally laughable. When the money is eventually donated to the now-broke bank along with a joke, the proprietor dies laughing, forcing a change in ownership and fundamental reform of management. We, too, need a change in ownership and fundamental reform of our banks. Some people see this being achieved through full nationalisation and state control. I would personally prefer to see it happen by allowing banks that have become too big and too rigid to fail, so that new forms of banking can develop in their place. It may be that some combination of nationalisation and bank failure will be required, depending on the size and significance of the bank. But even nationalised banks I think should suffer a sea-change - be broken up and sold on in bits to competitors and new entrants. And we should aim to remove all forms of government support from banks in the longer term.
The question of the bird lady remains unresolved. We don't know what happens to her. But really, she shouldn't exist. No elderly person should be forced to sell bird food (or anything else, for that matter) in order to survive. The diversion of political energy and public resources to the financial sector in the last few years, coupled with an unpleasant and illogical economic ideology, has meant that safety nets have been reduced, and we still do not have a satisfactory solution to the lack of funding of pensions, both state and private. It seems to me that supporting the poor, the sick and the old is the first duty of government in a civilised society, not the last. Let's get our priorities right.
In the film, Mary Poppins makes it very clear where her heart is, in her impassioned song "Feed the birds". I know where my heart is.